Mystery seeds

An example of a package of mysterious, unsolicited seeds arriving in mailboxes throughout the United States that the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes is part of a scam to falsely boost positive customer reviews on websites like Amazon.

Those so-called mystery seeds that have arrived in the mailboxes of some Tuolumne County residents and others throughout the United States may be part of a scam to boost product sales on websites like Amazon, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The department said in a news release on Thursday that it currently believes the seed packages that appear to originate from China are part of a “brushing scam” in which people are sent items unsolicited by a seller who then posts false glowing customer reviews to boost sales.

“(The) USDA is currently collecting seed packages from recipients and will test their contents and determine if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment,” the department said.

Osama El-Lissy, with the Plant Protection program of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said they have identified 14 different types of plant species from some of the seeds it has collected.

El-Lissy said the types of plants that have been identified include mustard, cabbage, morning glory and herbs such as mint, sage, rosemary, and lavender, as well as hibiscus and roses.

“This is just a subset of the samples we have collected so far,” he said.

In the meantime, Tuolumne County residents who receive the seeds are being advised by the local agricultural commissioner to contact her office and not to open the seed packages, hold onto them, plant them, or throw them away.

Commissioner Kelle Schroeder said her office had received calls from about eight county residents who had received the packages as of Thursday.

Schroeder said they were waiting for guidance from the USDA and California Department of Food and Agriculture about what to do with the seeds, but the concern is that they could be an invasive plant species.

“Such shipments pose a grave threat to our local and state agriculture,” she said.  “We appreciate the public’s help in keeping these illegal and potentially dangerous seeds out of our county.”

All 50 states have reportedly put out similar warnings about the seeds.

Anyone in the county who receives the seeds can contact the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office at (209) 533-5691. 

The Identity Theft Resource Center says that “brushing scams” are a relatively new method third-party sellers on sites like Amazon have been using to leave five-star reviews on their products and avoid violating the retailer’s terms against reviewing their own products.

While victims of such scams aren’t charged for the items, the center says the reality is that it means the scammers have gained access to their name, mailing address, and possibly other information.

People who receive packages addressed to them that they did not order are advised by the center to contact the retailer and change the passwords on their online accounts in case the scammer obtained their information by hacking into an account.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 768-5175.

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