Here's why unordered Chinese seeds may show up in your mailbox: Internet Scambusters #921
Everybody's talking about those mystery packages of Chinese seeds that many people have been receiving, unsolicited, in their mail deliveries.
Most security and consumer experts think they're probably part of a "brushing" scam. If so, we'll tell you how it works and why your online shopping accounts probably haven't been compromised.
We also have a timely warning about why you can't always trust ads and promotions that claim independent testing proves the effectiveness of a product.
Let's get started...
Cracking the Chinese Seeds Mystery
Those Chinese seeds. You'd have to have totally ignored the news in recent weeks if you haven't seen reports about unordered mystery packages of seeds, mailed from China, that have turned up in hundreds of mailboxes.
Consumer experts suggest that the mailings are part of a "brushing" operation, although some believe they could also be a sinister attempt to cover the US with noxious weeds!
We've written about brushing in the past (see "Brushing" Scam Delivers Unwanted Products). It's a trick in which suppliers send unsolicited products to people and then pose as the sender or recipient to write a "verified purchase" review on retail websites like Amazon.
But, seeds? If brushing is behind them, here's how the trick likely works:
The originator, most likely in China, actually sells cheap jewelry or other products online. They operate in the "marketplace" sector of retailers like Amazon, which means they do all their own shipping.
They use a ghost account they've set up with the retailer and order their own products, sending them to random addresses in the US. This then entitles them to write a "verified purchase" review.
But why send out jewelry or any other consumer product, even if it is cheap, when they can just stuff the package with worthless seeds?! They can still write a review about the jewelry since Amazon, or whoever, has no idea what's been sent.
So, if you receive one of those packages, there's almost certainly nothing to worry about.
However, it makes sense that you shouldn't plant them, just in case they turn out to be noxious, or even illegal.
For the same reason, you're advised not to just pitch them in the trash. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued guidance on what to do if you receive the seeds in the mail.
And don't worry that your Amazon or other account has been compromised. It probably hasn't. The scammers on the other side of the Pacific don't need your account details to target you. They simply send them as a "gift" to addresses they gather at random.
It's the same as when you send a gift to someone; you don't need their account details, just their address.
In fact, if you check the address label on these "brushing" packages, it may not even have your name, just your street address.
And what should you do if you actually receive some real jewelry or another consumer product that's unsolicited?
While we're not legal experts and can't provide legal advice, the weight of opinion seems to be that you can keep them.
In fact, one member of the Scambusters team has been on the receiving end of brushing shipments for the past few months. He plans to store the items for a year and then put them in the trash.
Why not keep them? The most valuable item he's received so far is a bunion protector. And he doesn't have bunions.
Now, on with our second topic of the week...
Putting the Brakes on Dubious Claims
Most of us are used to seeing claims that this or that product is the best on the market or that it's simply effective. Generally, we take them with a pinch of caution. But what about when a supplier claims it has proof?
We're talking about claims like "clinically proven," "independently tested," and other phrases meant to imply a product's effectiveness is backed up by the results of research or consumer surveys.
And we don't just mean claims relating to potential virus cures or treatment.
In fact, the subject has recently surfaced in the context of car brake pads.
A supplier claimed that independent tests showed that its brake pads could stop an auto faster than some others. That's quite a claim when you think about it because it could make the difference between life and death.
A consumer investigation showed that, while tests were truly carried out by a third party, the way they were conducted didn't line up with what would happen in a real-world emergency braking situation.
The US Federal Trade Commission has stepped into the debate, with this warning: "Comparative safety claims can be highly material to consumers, especially for products people can't evaluate for themselves.
"When making express or implied representations - especially if you're saying your product is objectively superior to competitors - don't put the pedal to the metal unless you have sound proof... Companies should make sure their tests reflect real-world conditions."
That's what they're warning product marketers. But for us consumers, the message is to be wary of claims that suggest a supplier has proof their product is the best or most effective.
As always, find out what others have to say first.
Alert of the Week
We've written before about fake photos, but what about when the photo is genuine but deceptive.
That's happened to victims of a recent Facebook scam who were tricked into buying a pair of seemingly attractive lawn seats for a knockdown price.
The offer was backed by a photo of the two seats, which did indeed look like a great buy. But when they arrived at the buyer's home, the seats turned out to be just a few inches high, more suited to a doll house, something that couldn't have been told from the photo.
Buyer beware! Check the specs of any item you're thinking of buying. If there are no specs, think twice about buying. Looks can deceive.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!