New vector for invasive species: Unsolicited seeds in the mail

I came across an interesting news article today:

"Canadian Food Inspection Agency says don’t plant ‘unsolicited packages of seeds’ received in mail", CTV News, 2020-07-28

it’s believed the seeds are part of a “brushing scam,” in which a seller sends someone a cheap product or empty box, then uses that shipment information to create a fake review for the company, which can boost its rating on e-commerce sites.

Essentially it’s being done to create fake “verified reviews”. No idea what site it’s for, but it’s a scam and one with risk of environmental consequences.

If anyone does receive such unsolicited seeds, do not plant the seeds, nor dispose of them in the garbage. Rather, call a local inspection agency.

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I wonder if it’s related to those obviously fake seeds sold on eBay that tout such things as “monkey orchids” or other nonsense like that. I remember ordering one of those once (“blue lotus”) just out of curiosity and the packet the seeds came in looked pretty similar to the ones in these reports

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I saw that too, but I don’t get why they need to send a physical shipment to generate the fake reviews… I have a suspicion that this is a bogus “China bashing” exercise… Does anyone have anything informative on how this “brushing” is supposed to work?

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Is it situations where the distribution service controls the placing of reviews, ie only on notification of delivery is the option to place review activated?

Personally, I never buy anything based on strangers’ good reviews. I’m more interested in the “problem transactions” and how the company dealt with them!

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Definitely not “China bashing”, as the CFIA & the Canadian gov’t is rather cautious about that due to current circumstances. Remember: We Canucks aren’t an extension of the United States.

I don’t get why they need to send a physical shipment to generate the fake reviews

Is it situations where the distribution service controls the placing of reviews, ie only on notification of delivery is the option to place review activated?

Yes, kind of. Orders are placed through a marketplace platform (e.g. Amazon or Alibaba) and the seller is fulfilling those orders. Marketplaces assign greater weight to “verified purchases” (i.e. it was shipped to someone, then reviewed). This is intended to prevent fake or sponsored reviews from influencing the system. Same reason why NYT Bestsellers are based on sales data… though neither does that prevent the players from evolving and gaming the system.

Gaming the system is easier now because:

  1. Addresses & Names are cheap & easy to get:
  • could just be using name & address data from a hack/dump
  • or just bought from a data broker.
  • or even from state agencies such as the DMV (cf. lax American privacy laws).
  1. Fake accounts are cheap:
  • use bots to do so
  • use inexpensive labour from SE Asia
  1. The product & shipping is cheap:
  • Main cost is shipping & even that is cheap
  • Seeds probably cost a few pennies
  1. Nothing looks suspicious
  • Few people complain when they get something “free”
  • Lots of people don’t want to admit to mistakes or not remembering
  • Less suspicious than receiving an empty box

Personally, I never buy anything based on strangers’ good reviews. I’m more interested in the “problem transactions” and how the company dealt with them!

Those positive reviews may influence some people, however the main target is the sorting algorithm on the retailer’s site. If your widget is ranked in the top 5 on Amazon, you’re going to sell a lot of widgets, even if they aren’t the best or the cheapest.

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Does anyone know if they have been planted in a biosecure place to see what they are? It’s very odd.

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This is very strange indeed, I’ve never heard of random unsolicited seeds coming in the mail, very strange.

From what I know, seeds that you get when ordering things such as “Monkey Orchids” or “Rare Carnivorous Plant” are baby’s breath (Gypsophila) seeds or baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii), but perhaps they’ve expanded more by now and send seeds other than those. So, maybe these random seeds are of baby’s breath or baby’s tears.

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in the article I saw, there was a photograph of what looked like citrus seeds. I know from seeing trifoliata rootstocks fruiting that they are prolific in seeds, so would be a cheap source of “product”. It will be interesting!

and thanks @murphyslab , good points !

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The seed packets I’m familiar with are coming in the mail, directly from China. Something is fishy about them and I’d love to know exactly what is in them and why China is sending us them.

A few friends of mine have received these packages, which sadly I was not able to get a good look at (except the packaging). They disposed of them, sadly - and we know garbage can end up anywhere. I hope they are not dangerous seeds.

I say, if you get these packages do not plant them or dispose of them. Send them right to your local state agricultural department and hopefully try to get them to give you an ID on what you’re being sent.

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From the photos I’ve seen in the press, they’ve looked mostly like citrus seeds or sunflower seeds but there’s probably more out there that haven’t been shared around yet

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I have received one unsolicited package from China in the mail, containing a set of plastic hairclips, when i lived at a previous address, but not seeds. Seeds seem like a strange choice for a scam like this. ‘Brushing’ is technically a victimless crime and choosing to send something that might get intercepted for breaking biosecurity laws seems like it would cause the fraudulent seller more trouble than it’s worth.

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not if they are depriving patronage of a “legitimate and lawful” business that might be in competition with them.

I had to get a tow bar on my vehicle, so I arranged quotes. Three of them. They came in predictably as low, middle and high, and there was no evident reason not to take the lowest. Work was done, and when I went to pick up the car, they claimed there was a mistake in the quote, it was actually this other price which would have put it middle of the three but only by a small difference. I refused to pay the extra, they refused to give it to me at the price initially quoted, so I told them to take the towbar off. A mutual friend offered to mediate, and suggested we both meet in the middle, and we agreed on that… and then years later I heard that they do that “trick” often… “winning” work that their competition doesn’t get by such deception is (to me) extremely disgraceful!

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I think that’s the Reuters photo (it’s the most widely used). The photos show on the CTV article depict something different. Those images were supplied by the Ontario Provincial Police on Twitter. A Boston Globe article shows both the Reuters photo and another one (something different again) from the Maryland state agency. A USDA tweet has yet another type of seed.

Seems quite varied and widespread. Apparently there are warnings from the UK now too. And it’s a fair number of people receiving these packages:

Over the past few weeks, at least 187 Texans received unsolicited packages of mystery seeds in the mail that appeared to have come from China. Meanwhile, all 50 states have issued warnings about similar bundles of unknown seeds being sent to residents from overseas, causing concern among government officials and agricultural leaders.
Source: an article in The Texas Tribune

And CNN has links to statements on the seeds from agencies in all 50 US states.

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Not quite the same…a better analogy would be if they attached your towbar at the agreed price, which you paid, and then after driving away, they mail you a new air freshener (or something tiny) unsolicited so that someone can leave them a good review online for the sale of an air freshener. It’s to fluff up their reviews.

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No, the point I am making is that if they are fluffing up their reviews in order to attract business that would otherwise go somewhere else, then there is a victim. So… if I based my decision on the airfreshner reviews that you suggest, then that fluffing would be a better analogy, but it was the quote that I based my decision on, so the fraudulent representation of that quote is what created the “victim” of a business missing out on the job. At least as far as my analogy.

If no other business missed out on sales due to their tactic, ie if they “created market” rather than “appropriated market”, then it could be considered a victimless crime…

at least in my view…

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Good question, I was wondering that myself. However, botanical sabotage has been going on for quite some time in human history. Read Matthew 13:24-28 (the wheat & the tares) for an early illustration of this problem.

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UK folks have also been receiving as well (link).

The article notes seeds may be used because they “provide a cheap fake item, and often have a similar weight and feel to jewellery.” Jewelry is apparently often what has been put on the customs forms when sending.

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Apparently the USDA has identified 14 of the seed species. It seems to fit with the “brushing” scam theory.
They may or may not be from China. The Chinese PO says the stamp marks are counterfeit, but who can really trust that’s true. I don’t think it’s “China bashing” to suggest that the scam could come from a Chinese source. Scams come from all over the world.

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