By Lambert Strether of Corrente
Generally the story during the summer’s silly season is shark attacks or a missing white woman. This summer — apparently because 2020’s showrunners thought the murder hornets weren’t making it — besides the election, we have the mysterious seed packets arriving from China. Since I’ve written about seed catalogs, I thought I might as well write about seeds, but in fact the story is not really about the seeds, but about the danker corners of Chinese e-commerce, where I end up. Facing a wall, I might add!
Mysterious seeds arriving in the mail are a little spooky, especially since so much else seems to be arriving mysteriously, especially in viral form. Here’s how the story appears from the perspective of one of the recipients of the packages:
A Sherman woman received seeds in a package from China that she did not order, and planted them before she realized something wasn’t right.
“On the package, it says rose stud earrings, and in the package was a package of seeds,” Patricia Smith said.
Smith lives in Sherman and said she got the package back in April.
Originally she thought it may have been a gift from someone in a gift exchange group that she’s part of.
“And nobody had sent me any earrings like that so I don’t know I just had a weird feeling about it,” Smith said.
But Smith said she has a green thumb and dozens of plants, so she planted five of the seeds.
“And I planted them in a pot, they never came up, so I didn’t think any more of it,” Smith said.
Smith said months later she heard about other people getting seeds in the mail from China like she did, without ordering anything.
She contacted a Grayson County agriculture agent who told her what to do.”Put everything in Ziplock bags, keep it outside of my house, when I’m handling these Ziplock bags I even wear gloves,” Smith said.
Tiffany Lowery of Logan County, Kentucky also planted her seeds. This is what she got:
(Lowery was also in a gift exchange group.) So did Doyle Crenshaw of Booneville, Arkansas:
“We brought them down here and planted the seeds just to see what would happen, every two weeks I’d come by and put miracle grow on it and they just started growing like crazy.”
I’m sure there are more examples, so if there’s an Audrey aspect to all this (unlikely), well, that seed has already left the packet.
The unsolicited packages themselves — photos here, here, here, here, here, here, and many other links, the seeds are a thing — come in manila or white envelopes from China Post, affixed with printed white labels bearing shipper and customs information. The labels use similar but not identical layouts. They do not use the same fonts. Nor is the shipper/tracker information consistent. Many of the labels describe the package content, for customs, as jewelry. The seeds themselves come in various types of zip lock bags. There is no branding on the bags. No written material of any kind is included. Collectively, the packages have an artisanal air, as if they were put together by many small contractors. As for the seeds themselves, from Business Insider:
“We have identified 14 different species of seeds, including mustard, cabbage, morning glory, and some of the herbs like mint, sage, rosemary, lavender, then other seeds like hibiscus and roses,” said Osama El-Lissy, a deputy administrator for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
“This is just a subset of the samples we have collected so far,” he said.
(What about Doyle Crenshaw’s squash?)
The operation, whatever it is, is of some scale. Other countries have received the seeds (“hundreds of British gardeners“). In this country, there is naturally no aggregated count, but residents in all 50 states are said to have received them, including Florida (631), Indiana (300), Kentucky (“several“), Louisiana (100), Maryland (~100), North Carolina (“numerous“), Ohio (150), and Virginia (900).
Interestingly, there’s a ton of local coverage on the China seeds, I imagine because mysterious seeds from China is a good human interest story; most of the national stories are driven by local reporting. For example, Ohio’s Whitehouse Police Department seems to have gotten out front early, so they’re cited all over the place. However, in a stunning example of effective and rapid governance, the USDA has issued guidance, “USDA Investigates Packages of Unsolicited Seeds from China“:
USDA is aware that people across the country have received suspicious, unsolicited packages of seed that appear to be coming from China. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, other federal agencies, and State departments of agriculture to investigate the situation.
USDA urges anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds to immediately contact their State plant regulatory official or APHIS State plant health director. Please hold onto the seeds and packaging, including the mailing label, until someone from your State department of agriculture or APHIS contacts you with further instructions. Do not plant seeds from unknown origins [ffs].
USDA is committed to preventing the unlawful entry of prohibited seeds and protecting U.S. agriculture from invasive pests and noxious weeds. Visit the APHIS’ website to learn more about USDA’s efforts to stop agricultural smuggling and promote trade compliance.
And USDA put out an excellent and comprehensive FAQ, “USDA Investigates Packages of Unsolicited Seeds: Seeks Help from Citizens to Collect Unsolicited Seeds Package” (and I like “Seeks Help from Citizens”; we need more “citizens” language, as opposed to “consumers” language). Here, reader, is what you should do if you receive an unsolicited seed packet from China:
What should I do if I’ve received a package of seeds?
It is important that we collect and test as many seeds as possible to determine whether these packets present a threat to U.S. agriculture or the environment. Anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds should follow these steps:
• Save the seeds and the package they came in, including the mailing label.
• Do not open the seed packets.
• Do not plant any of the seed.
• If the packets are already open, place all materials (seeds and packaging) into a zip lock bag and seal it.
• Place everything (seeds and any packaging, including the mailing label) in a mailing envelope. Please include your name, address, and phone number so that a State or Federal agriculture official can contact you for additional information.
• Contact your State plant regulatory official or APHIS State plant health director for instructions or where to send the package, to arrange a no-contact pick up, or to determine a convenient drop-off location.
But — I hear you ask — “Why?” Why is some mysterious entity, presumably Chinese, sending unsolicited seed packets to people around the world? The USDA’s answer, picked up by most other venues (CBS, NBC), is that the operation is a “brushing scam”:
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.
Here is a more extended explanation of “brushing” as it is practiced on Amazon. From the Boston Globe, “This couple keeps getting mystery packages from Amazon they didn’t order“:
Here’s how two experts who used to work for Amazon, James Thomson and Chris McCabe, say it probably works: A seller trying to prop up a product would set up a phony e-mail account that would be used to establish an Amazon account. Then the seller would purchase merchandise with a gift card — no identifying information there — and send it to a random person, in this case the Gallivans.
So “brushing” is not unknown. However, I think it is unknown on the scale of the Chinese seed operation.
Then, the phantom seller, who controls the “buyer’s” e-mail account, writes glowing reviews of the product, thus boosting the Amazon ranking of the product.
“The key is to get something delivered somewhere,” said Thomson, one of the business consultants who once worked for Amazon. Once a package is shipped and the recipient weighs in with a review, the recipient is deemed a “verified buyer” writing a “verified review,” to use Amazon’s parlance, “and that is hugely important in the world of Amazon,” Thomson said.
Amazon highlights verified reviews. And it gives better display on its pages to those products that have a greater number of verified reviews, Thomson said.
So now we are entering the world of e-commerce, a business l’m not devious enough to be in. However, there’s a central oddity in Thomson and McCabe’s account, at least with respect to our Chinese seeds story. Before examining it — perhaps you can guess what it is — I’ll go into some other oddities, which it would be nice to have the reporting cover:
1) The security issue. How were the names and addresses of the recipients acquired? On the black market, I assume, but it would be nice to have more detail.
2) Cui bono? Assuming this is a big brushing operation, some seller must be rocketing up in the rankings, somewhere. Who and where? (I’m assuming this is one operation for one customer.)
3) What is the seller selling? Seeds or garden supplies, or anything at all?
4) China says the labels are forged. South China Morning Post:
On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular press briefing: “China Post has asked the United States Postal Service to return this faked mail to China so China can investigate.”
Wang said information labels on the packages appeared to be forged, according to checks by China’s postal service, adding that there were errors in the information attached to the packages.
Leaving open the question of how China Post shipped packages with forged labels. The packages were barcoded, after all.
So now let’s turn to the central oddity of the story. It is this: Why did the packages need to be shipped at all? To understand this, let’s look at the workflow of the seller who is purchasing brushing from one or more contractors. There is, in fact, a world expert in brushing, Haitao Xu, who was the prime on “E-commerce Reputation Manipulation: The Emergence of Reputation-Escalation-as-a-Service” (PDF), which is a really neat article for those who would like the study criminally devious minds (brushing is illegal in China, but also very profitable). From that article:
Heh heh, I just put that diagram to underline the insane complexity of it all. Xu et al’s prose explanatin is much more clear. We start at step (6), order fulfillment. Here is what the contractor does. Taobao is a Chinese e-commerce site:
After finishing all the required actions listed in the task description, the worker gets to the
checkout step and provides payment to Taobao’s escrow-based system Alipay using either her own form of allowed payment or the e-Gift card provided by the seller (Step 6). Then the seller arranges to fulfill the order. For virtual goods such as software and prepaid phone cards, the order is directly fulfilled via the Internet, and the worker is required to confirm the receipt and leave good ratings immediately after checkout. For physical goods such as clothes, the seller never ships out the ordered goods but is required by Taobao to provide a mail tracking label for package tracking. To evade detection, for each task with physical goods, the seller purchases one express mail tracking label from the SRE market at a price of $0.4-0.7, depending on the shipment companies (Step 7). SRE markets usually partner with shipment companies to get a stable supply of fresh and unscanned express tracking labels. With the label purchased, the seller inputs the label number into Taobao and hence fulfills the order (Step 8). Some sellers may ship an empty package to the designated shipping address while most ship nothing
So if all that is needed is the label, why ship the goods? Here is where I end up facing the wall in a dank corner in the world of e-commerce. China says the labels were forged (“fresh and unscanned,” ha ha ha). But if the seller was trying to boost rankings in China, why slap the label on the package at all? (I can find no evidence of tougher regulation in China.) Perhaps, then, there is another large but non-Chinese e-commerce platform whose requirements for verified users and rankings are such that a product actually needs to be shipped. If indeed this brushing operation is unusually large — and we know this operation operates in several countries and all fifty states — such a platform’s rankings might, in there entirety, be called into question. Can any e-commerce mavens comment?
 It would be an interesting effort to run the tracking numbers, though I doubt they’d lead anywhere.
 A gift exchange group sounds like a nice idea; I hate that they make people vulnerable (which is how neoliberalism plus the virus makes me think, I guess).
 The postal pricing is an artifact of globalization. Forbes:
To add insult to injury, due to the imbalanced pricing policies of the United Postal Union, shippers from countries like Kyrgyzstan and China can send mail to the USA at a subsidized rate–generally way cheaper than it costs to send a package domestically–so USPS customers and U.S. taxpayers end up picking up the tab to become victims of international brushing rackets.
 From Xu et al.: “Our study demonstrates that online sellers using [Seller Reputation Escalation (SRE)] service [including brushing] can increase their stores’ reputations at least 10 times faster than legitimate ones while only 2.2% of them were detected and penalized. Even worse, we found a newly launched service that can, within a single day, boost a seller’s reputation by such a degree that would require a legitimate seller at least a year to accomplish.”