Day 6

Got an unexpected package? It could be part of a brushing scam

According to experts and a consumer advocacy organization, receiving unsolicited packages may be part of so-called brushing scams. Companies, often operating overseas, purchase items and have them shipped to a random recipient with the intent of writing favourable reviews.

Scam lets companies boost ratings of their products on marketplaces like Amazon

Brushing is a scam that allows third-party vendors to boost their product ratings on marketplaces like Amazon. After an unsolicited package is delivered to a random customer, the vendor will then write a favourable review of that product. (Lynne Sladky/The Associated Press)

Meghan Atkinson's experience with a scam known as brushing started last summer with a dog pool.

Though she had not ordered the item, it was delivered to her home by Amazon. Atkinson doesn't even have a dog.

She scoured her order history and credit card statements thinking maybe she accidentally added it to her online cart. But there was no trace of the product. Then the packages kept coming.

"We got a smartwatch, which looks like an Apple Watch," she told Day 6. "I've had phone cords for Apple products, but I don't have any Apple products."

She added: "I've had vacuum bags, but it doesn't say what vacuum they would work with, so they're just still sitting around."

According to experts and the Better Business Bureau, a consumer advocacy organization, receiving unsolicited packages may be part of so-called brushing scams. Companies, often operating overseas, purchase items and have them shipped to random recipients so the seller can then write a favourable review on the product.

Meghan Atkinson has been receiving packages of items she never ordered, including this pet nail trimmer. (Submitted by Meghan Atkinson)

The shipments typically include light-weight, low-cost items. The aim is to boost a sellers' product rating on e-commerce shops such as Amazon.

"If you're like most consumers who use Amazon, one of the very first things you do ... is you look for the product that has the most positive reviews," Brian Kilcourse, co-founder of Retail Systems Research, said from San Francisco.

"This is one of the ways that they goose up the number of positive reviews that they have."

Brushing scams became more common in 2020, when unsolicited seeds sent from China began appearing in mailboxes across Canada. 

Potential privacy risk

Those who are targeted in a brushing scam aren't on the hook for anything that arrives at their door. That means they owe no money, nor do they have to return the delivered item. In Atkinson's case, she's given away a number of items from her mystery shopper.

But experts and consumer advocates warn that it could signal your personal information is in the hands of bad actors.

Atkinson has received various items, from a dog pool to these fishing lures. Experts say that items sent as part of brushing scams are typically lightweight and low cost. (Submitted by Meghan Atkinson)

"They might get your information if you, let's say, clicked on a link that was [in] a phishing email," said Jessie St-Cyr, spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau in Ottawa. Details like your name, address and phone number could also be floating around the dark web, where they're sold.

"Nobody is immune to scams — to brushing scams, either — and so it's our duty as consumers to protect our information and make sure we're not victims of identity theft or brushing scams in these cases," she said.

Oftentimes, people may not know the unexpected deliveries are a scam. Like Atkinson, many assume they've received a package that's been delivered to the wrong address.

On its website, Amazon says that customers who receive unsolicited packages should immediately report the delivery, noting that third-party resellers on the platform are prohibited from the practice.

The company says that it "takes action" on retailers that participate in brushing, which may include "removing selling privileges, withholding payments and working with law enforcement."

Atkinson, who lives in Waterdown, Ont., part of Hamilton, reached out to Amazon for help, but she says it told her that once personal information is out there, not much can be done.

"It's pretty pervasive and it's an insidious problem, so it's not an easy thing for them to solve."

Among the other items Atkinson has unexpectedly received are vacuum bags for an unspecified vacuum and charging cables for Apple devices, which she does not own. (Submitted by Meghan Atkinson)

Stopping deliveries a challenge

Both St-Cyr and Kilcourse say that people can take action if they suspect they're receiving packages as part of a brushing scheme.

First, make sure that you "change all the passwords to anything related to payment processing that you have on the internet," Kilcourse said. That means services like PayPal and Amazon, as well as your online banking accounts, should get a security checkup.

Consumers should also keep a close eye on their bank and credit statements to ensure they're not being charged for anything they didn't buy.

"Another thing is to get your credit report once a year, especially if you've been a victim to a brushing scam," St-Cyr said.

Experts say that unsolicited packages do not need to be returned to sender. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

But it can prove difficult to get the packages to stop.

"If there is a way to make it stop, I haven't heard of it. Unfortunately, once your name is out there being bandied about by these people, it's pretty hard to get them to stop because you don't know who they are," she said.

While Atkinson says the mystery of her surprise Amazon packages was entertaining at the beginning, now she hopes to see the deliveries disappear — especially given concerns about access to her private information.

"It would also be good if it just stopped because it is all junk, so none of it's really worth keeping."

Written by Jason Vermes. Interviews with Meghan Atkinson and Brian Kilcourse produced by Laurie Allan.


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