Amazon, RCMP on the case as unsolicited deliveries of sex toys, other items cause concern on campus
Mountie in Thunder Bay, Ont., investigates after bizarre deliveries to Lakehead University's student union
Amazon and the RCMP have each launched investigations to try to figure out why university student unions across the country are receiving packages from anonymous senders containing items such as sex toys, cameras, record players, dog toys and a red cape.
The unsolicited goods arriving in Amazon packaging with no accompanying explanation have sparked fears among some student unions that something nefarious is going on.
Turns out, Amazon is concerned, too.
On the company's website, Amazon says it notifies its sellers when a customer places an order. But the online retailer says the sellers behind the mysterious packages didn't get the student union names and shipping addresses from Amazon.
"This behaviour violates our policies. We remove sellers in violation of our policies … and work with law enforcement to take appropriate action," Amazon said in a statement. "Consumer trust is one of our top priorities."
More than 10 university student unions — including those at Dalhousie in Halifax, Ryerson in Toronto, the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and Royal Roads in Victoria — have each received up to 35 unsolicited Amazon packages since the fall.
The student union at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., has received 16 packages so far containing multiple products including dildos, vibrators, wireless headphones and a record player.
After failing to get answers from Amazon, Farhan Yousaf, the union's vice-president of operations and finance, contacted the local RCMP in November.
"We kind of got worried," he said. Fears ranged from the possibility someone's credit card was hacked to buy the items to a package containing dangerous goods.
"It might be something harmful," he said.
RCMP Const. Darryl Waruk took on the case. According to his findings, the items are coming from distributors in China who sell their wares on Amazon.
He says Amazon's law enforcement support department told him the Chinese companies are sending their goods to Canadian university student unions as a marketing tactic.
"It's just a way of companies getting their product out there and showing a demand for their product," Waruk said.
He says Amazon told him this was "a normal trade practice," and the constable ended his investigation after being assured no criminality was involved.
Still, he thinks the practice is odd.
"It didn't sound right to me," he said, considering the items were shipped to student unions with no accompanying message.
"At least put a letter in there saying, 'This is being sent to you as a gift,'" Waruk said. "But there's no waybill, there's nothing.
"You just open up the box and there's a camera. I mean, there's sex toys, there was weird stuff."
'Priming the pump'
China-based e-commerce giant Alibaba has recently faced problems with some vendors engaging in "brushing": fabricating sales and corresponding positive customer reviews in an effort to boost a product's status on Alibaba.
"That gets into full-blown outright misrepresentation," said Lindsay Meredith, a marketing professor at Simon Fraser University in B.C. "That one can certainly get your butt into court."
CBC News asked Amazon if something similar is going on with the anonymous packages, but the company didn't address the question, or any other questions about the RCMP investigation.
It did say its own investigation continues.
Meredith suggests in Amazon's case, the mystery senders may be targeting student union leaders in hopes they use their products and then influence other students to buy them as well.
"You want to get the product in their hands, other people see it and say, 'Yup, got to have one of those, too,'" he said. "Kind of priming the pump."
If that's the motive, it's not exactly working. Several student unions have told CBC News they have no plans to keep the products and will give them away.
Farhan's student union plans to auction off its items and give the money to Lakehead University's student food bank.
"If I take the camera and stuff home, that's not ethical, that's not right," he said. "It's not something I've paid for."
Yousaf believes much of the confusion caused by the mysterious packages could have been avoided if Amazon had been more upfront about what it knew about the mysterious deliveries.
"Have some sort of communication with us," he said. "Just random packages coming in like that, it becomes a little bit concerning. It just causes unnecessary stress."
Shawn Wiskar, vice-president of student affairs for the University of Regina's student union, agrees. He says his group has received more than 15 anonymous Amazon packages since November, full of random goods including two record players, a kitchen scale and, just this week, a red cape.
He said the student union contacted Amazon multiple times but got no concrete answers.
"It is a little frustrating to not be let in on this secret."