By Nathaniel Meyersohn and Zach Wasser | CNN Business
Most people who shop online just have to worry about deliveries being delayed or never arriving. But some people are dealing with a completely different problem: getting odd things like hair clippers, face creams, and sunglasses that they never even ordered.
The Federal Trade Commission and computer experts have warned consumers about these deliveries, which may be part of something known as “brushing” scams.
Here’s how these scams work: Third-party sellers on Amazon, eBay, and other online marketplaces pay people to write fake, positive reviews about their products or do it themselves. In order to publish the reviews, these so-called “scrubbers” have to trick the site into making it appear that a legitimate transaction has taken place. They will then use a fake account to place orders for gifts and direct them to a random person whose name and address they find online. So, instead of actually shipping the item they want to post a review for, brushers will send out a cheap, often lightweight item that costs less to ship.
Sending an item (even the wrong one) creates a tracking number and, when the package is delivered, allows users to write a verified review. If you are receiving, you are usually not charged for the purchase and your real account is not hacked, but you are left in the dark as to who is repeatedly sending the mystery packages. In many cases, there is no return address. You don’t have to worry that something bad has happened to you or will happen to you if you receive a package that could be part of a brushing scam, experts say. But we all need to worry about scams affecting reviews we rely on when buying products.
Garbage scams reportedly took off on e-commerce sites in China about five years ago. They resurfaced on the front page last summer, when all 50 states issued warnings about the mysterious unsolicited seed packs that people across the nation received in the mail.
But they are not just seeds. Unsuspecting recipients also found boxes with products ranging from dog scoops to power cords to soap dispensers on their doorstep.
Jen Blinn of Thousand Oaks, Calif., Told CNN Business that she has been receiving random packages since June, most recently including a briefcase, backpack, hair straightener, and cup warmer.
“Every two weeks … I get another package in the mail of random things that I’ve never ordered,” he said. Blinn informed Amazon of the problem, but a customer service agent “didn’t quite understand what I was saying. He obviously didn’t know, ”he said. The agent looked into Blinn’s account and found nothing wrong with it.
It is not illegal to send unsorted goods to customers. But the [Federal Trade Commission] has long prosecuted marketers who use fake reviews, ”said David Vladeck, former director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection and professor of law at Georgetown University.
Amazon states that its policy prohibits sellers from sending unsolicited merchandise to customers and that sellers can be removed from the site to do so.
“Third party sellers are prohibited from sending unsolicited packages to customers, and we take action against those who violate our policies, including withholding payments, suspending or removing selling privileges or working with law enforcement,” he said. an Amazon spokesperson said in an email. Amazon would not say how many brushing scams were found on the site or how many sellers were removed due to these scams.
An eBay spokesperson said in an email that the brushing patterns “don’t seem to be widespread” on the site. It violates eBay’s policy to send unsolicited merchandise to customers or falsify reviews and may result in the restriction of seller accounts or suspension from the site by eBay.
Experts also say it is difficult to quantify the frequency of such scams because it can be difficult for businesses to know if the reviews are fake and the scams often go unnoticed by consumers.
The fact that you have received a package that you did not order is usually harmless to you. The harm is for people who rely on reviews to decide on a purchase, said Chris McCabe, a former Amazon policy enforcement investigator tasked with stopping scams and fraud. He is now a consultant for sellers on the site.
“The real losers here are the consumers who probably believe a lot of these fake positive reviews, or this artificial filling of reviews, because they could see 100 positive reviews, and so there might only be 60 or 70 of them legitimate,” he said.
According to a 2017 report from Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center, the likelihood that a consumer will buy a product with five reviews is 270% higher than the likelihood that they will buy a product with zero reviews.
Some fake reviews are also led by Facebook groups where sellers offer money to buyers if they write positive product reviews, McCabe said. Amazon and Facebook should work together to crack down on these groups, he said.
An Amazon spokesperson said the company analyzes more than 10 million reviews every week to try to prevent fake ones from being posted and that it provides details of its investigations to social media companies “so they can prevent these bad actors from abuse their platforms “.
A Facebook spokesperson said in an email that when the company is notified of groups that may be encouraging fake reviews, it reviews and removes them if they violate its policies.
Unwanted sheets and Shiatsu massagers
For consumers, unexpected deliveries can be disconcerting. Packages that Ashanté Nicole never ordered began arriving at her home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2019.
iPhone and portable car chargers. An iPad case. A heated shiatsu massage. A nail cleaning brush and a hair dryer. Sheets. A mattress cover. A toy floppy fish.
They had no return addresses, so Nicole wasn’t sure who was sending the packages. He contacted Amazon to try to stop them from coming, but they keep coming to his door.
“It was just a little scary because I don’t know who has my information,” he said. “I don’t know what they will send me. Like they could send something illegal and then I’m in trouble because I didn’t know who that person was or what they were sending me. “
If you receive merchandise that you haven’t ordered, it could mean that the scammers have created an account in your name or have taken over your account, an FTC spokesperson said in an email. The scammers may even have created new accounts with other names tied to your address, allowing them to post many seemingly real reviews.
“We recommend that you keep an eye on your online shopping accounts. If you notice a business that isn’t yours, report it to the site right away and think about changing the password for that site,” the spokesperson said.
Nicole feels she has done everything she can by alerting Amazon whenever unsolicited packages from the retailer arrive at her door.
“There is literally nothing I can do other than tell Amazon every time it happens. And that didn’t do much, “he said.
Amazon declined to comment directly on Nicole and Blinn’s accounts, but said that if a customer receives an unsolicited package, they should contact Amazon’s customer service team.
Nicole said she hopes Amazon will do more to stop brushing and ban sellers who participate in scams.
“I just think they need to be a little more concerned about closing those stores and making sure those sellers can’t use the platform.”
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