The packages appear to be coming from China, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)
. Photos shared by state agriculture departments
show packages marked with labeling from China Post, which operates the official postal service of China. Some of the labels also indicate that the packages contain jewelry, although inside is typically a packet of seeds in clear, plastic packaging.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, said at a briefing on Tuesday that the address labels were forged and that China Post has asked USPS to send those packages to China for investigation.
USPS said in a statement that it was aware of the mailings and is in consultation with federal, state and local partners. The agency declined to elaborate further.
It's not exactly clear who is behind the packages or what their intent is, but the leading theory is that they are part of a "brushing scam" -- when third-party sellers send people items they didn't order and write glowing product reviews on their behalf.
"At this time, we don't have any evidence indicating this is something other than a 'brushing scam' where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales," the USDA
said in a statement on Tuesday.
The USDA said its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) was investigating the situation along with the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, other federal agencies and state agriculture departments.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency
is also investigating similar reports from residents.
Officials think it could be part of a 'brushing scam'
Officials haven't confirmed for sure whether these packages are an example of "brushing." But it seems to be a likely possibility given that most of the recipients say they didn't order the items, said Katherine Hutt, chief communications officer for the Better Business Bureau
"When people get a package that they didn't order, that's one of the first things that we suspect," Hutt told CNN.
Brushing is typically carried out by third-party sellers on Amazon, Ebay, Etsy or other e-commerce platforms who are looking to boost sales through positive reviews, explained Hutt. Those platforms typically only accept reviews for fulfilled orders, so the sellers will ship unsolicited items to recipients and use their names to pose as satisfied customers and submit fake, glowing reviews on their behalf.
Those reviews could be for any product, despite what item the recipient actually received. That might be why some of the packages people have received in recent weeks have been labeled as containing jewelry despite containing seeds, Hutt said. It just so happens that seeds are lightweight and likely cheaper to mail.
If you're the target of a brushing scam, that doesn't necessarily mean any of your personal information has been compromised beyond your name and address, Hutt said. And in the case of these packages of seeds, so far there haven't been any reports or evidence indicating that people have been hacked.
What you should do if you get a package
If you happened to receive one of these packages, here is what the USDA and Better Business Bureau recommend you do:
- Contact your state plant regulatory official or APHIS state plant health director. You can find that information here and here, respectively.
- Keep the packaging and mailing label intact. The USDA asks that people hold onto the packages until they receive further instructions from authorities.
- Don't open the packet of seeds or plant them. Right now, their origins are unknown. The USDA is planning to test the contents of the packages to determine whether they pose any agricultural or environmental risks.
- Don't discard them in the trash. They could end up in a landfill, where they could take root.
- Make sure personal information hasn't been compromised. "Brushing scams" could indicate that someone has obtained your personal data. Check your bank statements, credit reports and credit card bills periodically to ensure nothing nefarious is taking place.
- Check the USDA and your state agencies for updates. These are the warnings from each state: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington state, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.