So What’s With Those Weird Seed Packets from China?

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[2].) So did Doyle Crenshaw of Booneville, Arkansas:

Says Doyle:

“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[1]. 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[3] 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[4]). 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?

NOTES

[1] It would be an interesting effort to run the tracking numbers, though I doubt they’d lead anywhere.

[2] 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).

[3] 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.

[4] 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.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

54 comments

  1. LaRuse

    Being in VA where so many packages are landing and so many warnings are going out, and being a dabbling gardener, I am slightly jealous that I haven’t received a mysterious package of seeds. I buy from Southern Exposure, Rare Seeds, Becky and Brent’s, and local greenhouses. What’s a girl gotta do to get in on a seed conspiracy?
    I kid. Mostly. I am not sure I could resist planting at least ONE mystery seed just to see what came up.

    Reply
    1. LaRuse

      For all my kidding about mysterious plants from (maybe) another continent, I will note this. An ailanthus altissima/Tree of Heaven turned up in a yard adjacent to mine a few years ago while the property was vacant. These trees are spreading over my county like uncontrolled wildfire and this spring, the yard-adjacent tree has started spreading via rhizomes into my yard; which will only force more native flora out. And killing this stuff is proving difficult.
      We were already hit by emerald ash borers killing the two ash trees we had.
      So I jest about planting mystery seeds, but invasives, be they flora or fauna, in my neighborhood really aren’t a joke.

      Reply
      1. sj

        Oh my gosh I have been struggling with these (ailanthus altissima/Tree of Heaven) for years! I cut down a very large one that had grown WAY to close to the foundation of my house. It provided the most shade for my house so it was a double whammy. And now, I don’t know how many years later, I still see those little suckers cropping up. And they grow FAST. It is really disheartening. And seriously aggravating.

        Reply
    2. Yves Smith

      I am paranoid and lazy. Sending them in is too much work. I would soak them in a small amount of something seriously flammable in a little metal bucket I could afford to lose for at least a day, and then ignite. Probably at night in the middle of the road (three driveways converge there too so lotta pavement, no trees, or maybe the center of the traffic circle down the street).

      Reply
      1. cocomaan

        Yves, I like that your laziness extends to setting things on fire.

        I would do the same thing, except I would invite friends over for a socially distanced cookout.

        Reply
      2. turtle

        Isn’t “kill it with fire” a popular (yet usually metaphorical) saying around this site? Nice to finally hear a reference to a literal use of it.

        Reply
      1. JEHR

        My first thought about why someone would send unsolicited seeds is to “sow” confusion such as not being able to get rid of the plant once grown. (I planted something called a Chinese Lantern and then read that it spread voraciously everywhere. I immediately dug out every single bit of that plant for two years running. Now I have another runaway plant that came in with either the cow manure or the mulch and will be tracking that stuff down for awhile.)

        Reply
      2. Sue inSoCal

        Why I think burning them up is an excellent idea! I’ve read about this. Considering the dangerous nature of invasive species of flora and fauna, I wouldn’t plant a weird seed no how, no way. Wonder where these are coming from and why…

        Reply
  2. ChrisPacific

    Another oddity: If it all works as described, why send seeds? They are a biosecurity risk and draw attention from Customs and USDA, and from media as well judging by the stories (although that last might not have been entirely predictable). Surely something like sand, paper, leftover packing material, or nothing at all would be lower profile and get the job done just as well.

    The brushing scam strikes me as a duck-typing explanation that leaves a number of details unaccounted for. There is more going on here than we understand as yet, although the unknowns could turn out to be boring and routine rather than sinister.

    Another unexamined assumption here is that this is a new thing that just started happening recently. I’m not sure this is a given. The one seeds report I’ve seen from NZ quotes Customs as saying it’s been a problem for ‘years.’ It would seem possible that this has been happening for some time already, and only appears new and alarming because the media has decided to take notice of it.

    Reply
  3. Spring Texan

    I got some little bulblets like this about a year or a year and a half ago. Planted them in a pot but they didn’t come up.

    Reply
  4. GettingTheBannedBack

    The implications of this are horrendous, from a biosafety perspective.
    Border inspectors in our country confiscate anything of a plant nature because of the high risk of imported diseases and pests to our agriculture industry.
    I imagine there are still exotic plants and diseases that don’t exist in the US that could wipe out the corn industry, the cotton industry etc.
    There should be warnings every which way to people to treat these seeds like plutonium in a paper bag.

    Reply
  5. polecat

    Miracle Grow ..
    Yeah, THAT’S the ticket ..

    One just can’t grow a perfect space POD without it.

    “gweuw-gweuw-gweuw-gweuw uhhff-uhhff ahh-ah crackle pop!”

    Anyone got a spare pitchfork?

    Reply
  6. Paul Whittaker

    can’t get more invasive than Virginia Creeper, I could spend the rest of my life pulling the dam stuff from my fence line. One spruce had it all the way to the top with the vine at the base about 3/4″ around

    Reply
    1. John Zelnicker

      @Paul Whittaker
      August 2, 2020 at 9:36 pm
      ——-

      Kudzu.

      You are also correct. Virginia Creeper is my personal nemesis.

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Kudzu can indeed behave invasively. I used to live in East Tennessee and I remember Kudzu. What I remember most was being impressed with its driving Life Force ( or whatever words a young kid would use for that).

        If I were to live right between the Upper South and the Deep South, in a place where the climate let kudzu and water hyacinth grow at the same time, and I had enough land for a one acre pond somewhere on it; I would let the pond cover over with water hyacinth and I would plant kudzu all around the edge of the pond to grow out over the water hyacinth. There would become a dense net of kudzu over a dense mat of water hyacinth.

        When I wanted vast quantities of live-green mulch material, I could just reel in a bunch of kudzu to the shore. The kudzu would drag its water hyacinth with it to shore and I could gather and chop up all that live green mass for mulch, plant-feeding, etc.

        Reply
  7. drumlin woodchuckles

    That could be the long range point of these seeds. Spending some time sending over harmless seeds will make the whole affair seem cute, harmless and even laughable.

    And then , when our guard is down, the particular Black Hat SeedSenders in China ( and maybe elsewhere) who have been sending these seeds . . . will send seeds mixed with deadly crop plagues and diseases, insect plague eggs, etc.

    So it is not cute and it is not funny. Each unpurchased seed packet of mysterious origin is a potential Trojan Horse in seed-packet disguise.

    Reply
    1. ObjectiveFunction

      Damn Commie preverts be fluoridating our water next!

      But yes, the animal spirits of China Inc. are blowing out all the frontiers of shoddy goods with an energy not seen since the 19th century snake oil days.

      I’ve lost track now of the number of hardware fittings that feature inferior grade metals screwing into inferior grade plastic. We just bought a $4 jacuzzi cover, and it’s flimsy bubble wrap that pops when you look at it funny. We expected something like that, but since chlorine and UV rotted the $20 one in 8 months leaving our tub filled with microplastics, we’ll just keep buying spares. Caveat emptor, and goodbye planet.

      An important point: the Chinese people are even bigger victims of this as the rest of us: melamine in baby formula, etc. Plus they get to breathe and drink the lovely externalities of their petrochemical complex.

      I remember as a kid going to a Chinatown in a large city, and asking my Dad how 40 tiny shops in a row, all selling the exact same junk, could possibly stay in business? That’s where I learned about gross margin. Also about price discrimination (aka ‘honky markup’).

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Damn Commie preverts be too late! We been fluoridating our own water for years. Damn Commie preverts have missed the boat on that one.

        But yes, Cheap China Crap has been spreading around the world like herpes. It is very hard to find different in many fields now. Respected European-named products like the Fiskars brand of various yard and garden tools are now FINO ( Fiskars In Name Only)

        Many hobby craftsfolk in many areas try finding good used Western World or Japanese tools on eBay or other newer such sites, or in thrift stores or estate sales. Others would know more about that than I would.

        It is hard to buy American when there is little or nothing American to buy. And of course there are some things made in China which seem pretty good. I bought several years ago a border fork brand-called Gardman, made in China , for $27.00. Its unique feature is the counter-to-eachother angle bend of the fork-end and the handle-end. I would have paid $80.00 to get it made in America, but I am not given that choice. And if China doesn’t make it anymore, that means it is extinct.

        American thing-making in many areas will never revive until a critical tipping-point massload of lower-middle-class-and-above Americans are willing to spend two or three times more money per thing and accept having two or three times less things. That’s the tradeoff.

        Right now so few people who could afford to make that tradeoff are willing to make it that only tiny bits of American thingmaking survive in odd rare corners. Luckily the internet still permits finding these few rare things with the right kind of effort.
        Certain made-in-America tools by Red Pig Tools.
        https://www.redpigtools.com/

        Certain made-in-America tools made by Hoss Tools.
        https://hosstools.com/

        For deep-soil loosening with a U-Bar Digger, here is a choice of 3 made by a maker in Washington State. But I don’t know where the steel comes from. Still, it is turned from steel to tool in this country. They charge an American price. Deal with it.
        https://meadowcreature.com/

        So there is some rare and scattered American production. It can be found and should be supported at a survival level against the day when millions of WalMartians and Amazombies decide to buy American again. And for those who could but won’t, let them eat . . . lead paint with melamine gravy.

        Reply
    2. Thomas P

      Sounds way more complex than it would have to be, and bound to get found out since some packages will be examined, and if a bioweapon is found the whole government security maching will go on high speed to find the sender.

      Given all the goods shipped from China, there are thousands of less conspicouos way. Just put a few seeds hidden in a lawn sprinkler and once it is put in the garden they get a chance to grow. Mix seeds, insect eggs or whatever in regular packaging material etc.

      Reply
      1. turtle

        Well, perhaps less conspicuous, yes, but maybe their nefarious plan counted on some people taking unknown, unsolicited mystery seed from China, planting them, and putting miracle gro on it every two weeks. For the win.

        Reply
  8. Calypso Facto

    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.

    This platform is Amazon itself. Remember Amazon Retail is also AWS, the cloud behemoth with 35% total market share of the entirety of the global clouds. Shipper data, such as that from China Post, is fed into an internal (to Amazon Retail, running on AWS) system which can cross-reference the addressee (receiver of the seeds) to an Amazon order and thereby create the “Verified Buyer” program. That VB program is what the brushing scammers are attempting to scam ‘as a service’ to Chinese sellers on Amazon. Because of the sheer number of sellers on Amazon and the large cut they take, any rankings boost can make a massive difference in profitability for the sellers.

    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.

    Yes indeed. This is only possible and profitable to the brushing scammers BECAUSE Amazon/AWS have such a massive share of the retail and cloud market. Without the former it would not make financial sense for the brushers to scam, but without the latter Amazon could not have created the VB program in the first place. If Amazon did not allow international sellers, or did not have such a massive share of the retail space, or were unable to use the AWS resources (effectively for free) to monetize the VB program, none of this would have happened.

    *: not a current or previous AWS engineer but have been technical service supplier so I have worked closely with their engineers to put out fires, aka I am not speaking with authoritative experience of looking directly at their systems, but these feed connections are supplied to every platform from the shippers.

    Reply
    1. Calypso Facto

      more thoughts on more details…

      the ‘artisanal’ nature of the seed packets: it occurs to me that one could set up a gig worker type scenario to handle the mailings themselves. The scammers would hire the seed-shippers wherever they were in China; the gig worker/seed shipper supplies their own seeds, say 20-30 grams worth, the scammers supply the shipping labels and addresses to ship the seeds to, and are then paid by the scammers per piece of mail. This seems like a decent explanation for both ‘why seeds’ and ‘are the seeds dangerous’: cheap, commonly available even for gig workers, non-standard packaging, no clear relationships to seed types, unlikely to be biohazard because it is likely just rural gig workers doing piecework.

      the recipients of the seeds: are probably just bulk address lists purchased by the scammers like any marketer would use. The recipient’s name is entered by the scammer as part of the brushed order. HOWEVER there may be a multi-layered scam around the recipients/address lists being used in another scam, like something involved with product returns (here’s an example RMA scam against Amazon, but there are many others!)

      Reply
      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > a gig worker type scenario

        That’s basically what Xu describes

        > likely just rural gig workers doing piecework

        Underline “rural.” I would bet all the packaging materials are supplied, but not the “payload.” If so, the villagers would be using whatever seeds they have a surplus of (relative to the income gained from the piecework). Hence the incredible variety of seeds shipped; it’s obvious they didn’t come from a central source.

        If so, from the biohazard perspective, ulp.

        Reply
        1. Calypso Facto

          Yes, I should have qualified it as the seeds not likely to be INTENTIONAL biohazard. Ecological devastation from non-native species, though… thankfully most of them look like common culinary hort seeds but probably a dangerous green or ten may be escaping now due to the scam. Forests of fuki/butterbur in the south?!?!

          Anyway yeah break up Amazon from AWS at the bare minimum, save the world (in multiple ways)

          Reply
        2. turtle

          Lambert, the big question for me is how in the USDA’s name are thousands of random foreign seed packets allowed to come into the US in the first place? You would figure from the customs warnings in inbound international flights one would be shipped off to Guantanamo if found carrying seeds.

          Reply
  9. Synoia

    Q: How were the names and addresses of the recipients acquired?

    A: By looking at public records of home ownership.

    This can be tested by checking to determine if any renters received properly addressed seed packets.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Kudzu may have been introduced by gardeners and hobbyists as early as the late 1890s. I haven’t studied that history and I just don’t know.

      I do remember learning that it was deployed widely across highly eroded parts of the South during the Great Depression/New Deal period to prevent and maybe even reverse soil erosion, to give livestock something good to eat when/where there wasn’t much, etc.

      It is a very talented plant which we just haven’t fully learned how to handle, manage and work with yet.
      Question: how much skycarbon is it sucking down when it grows as fast as it does?

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        Mandate of Heaven forfend that some CPA (Chinese People’s Army) functionary figure out how to produce a variety of Kudzu that releases carbon from the soil into the air. Cryptosynthesis.

        Reply
        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          If some CPA functionary went ahead and did that, the carbon thereby released would heat up China just as much as it would heat up everyone else. Leading to a net-net-net loss all around.

          Which is not to say it won’t be tried.

          Reply
    1. Acacia

      I came here to make the same observation. After all, how do we know the seeds are even from China? What better cover for the invasion? (“Oh, huh, another weird thing coming from China… welp, why not plant them?”)

      Not to be too foily, but… remember all those pollarded London plane trees framing Donald Sutherland in a desolate Civic Center Plaza, right before he utters that alien scream and the camera slowly zooms in on his open mouth? ;)

      Reply
  10. Greg Taylor

    I’d guess the seeds were sent to avoid getting caught. It may be that the reviews can’t be written until the shipper sends delivery confirmation to the platform. I ordered a dozen quarts of brand name bone broth a year or so ago at a good price. When the package arrived it had about 20 pounds of obviously worthless shipping forms – roughly the same weight as the bone broth. The shipping label had been cut off another box that likely contained the broth and taped onto my worthless box. Got my money back but lost the deal on the broth. Wondered why they’d bothered to ship the forms…figured it was detection avoidance.

    Reply
  11. California Bob

    There’s a new, similar scam I’ve been hit by: A couple months ago I ordered a respirator on eBay–for pesticide application, not the virus–and immediately the seller wrote emails saying “If you have a problem, please give us a chance to rectify it before notifying eBay” (except their English and grammar weren’t as good). When the package wasn’t delivered, and the USPS tracking number seemed a bit weird I contacted the seller; again, they said, in effect “Let us make good on this and please don’t contact eBay.” Again, I got another suspect tracking#; the package was ‘marked for pickup by USPS” but never got past that stage. By the third time, with a tracking# originating on the other side of the country the jig was up. It appears they’ve hacked the USPS and can either generate bogus tracking#s or ‘hijack’ a legitimate one (though none of them got past the ‘USPS notified, package not picked-up yet’ stage.

    To eBay’s credit they refunded my money within a day (without acknowledging any culpability, of course).

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I remember when eBay used to be fun. I remember when eBay featured normal peoples’ strange used no-longer-needed things of many kinds.

      Then eBay got degraded one way and another and another after that. It became no fun any more. I haven’t even looked at it more than once every 2-3 months just for gits and shiggles.

      It has become an ever-overflowing toilet full of various outlet-loads of “new” stuff from various operators and hustlers. Rather little neat/interesting/strange used things to be found in the categories I look at. Maybe in other categories.

      Reply
  12. Bill Carson

    I ordered an off-label printing cartridge through Amazon a year ago, and inside the package there was a note stating that if I would leave a review they would send me a $20 gift card. (Something like $20, I can’t recall exactly, but it was a significant amount compared to the price of my purchase.) I didn’t leave a review because I wanted to see if the cartridge performed well first. It didn’t. I don’t know if the offer was legit or not–like if I would have received the gift card if I left the review.

    The note also said something about not telling Amazon. Sounded suspicious.

    Reply
  13. Ignacio

    The Arkansas plant looks pretty much like a Cucurbit. Very much like Cucurbita pepo. There are many variants of Cucurbit species which look very different in flower colours and sizes as well as fruit sizes, shapes and colors.

    Reply
      1. Ignacio

        Yeah that was an interesting comment indeed. Because I don’t know anything about how online ‘retail’ commerce works I just wanted to point out that the seeds seem to be common horticultural seeds widely available. This is pretty much compatible with gig workers packing small amounts of these.

        Reply
  14. Ignacio

    And the plants in the pot look like Capsicum, though in this case I am not so sure. These are too small to tell.

    Reply
  15. drumlin woodchuckles

    There was a time when people had a choice of Amazon or NOmazon. So many people chose Amazon that most of those choices have been driven extinct for lack of customer support. But some of those choices still exist.

    Those who still have a choice between Amazon or NOmazon for whatever particular thing they are going to buy . . . and choose to buy from Amazon . . . . deserve whatever they get for having interacted with Amazon at all.

    Reply
  16. cnchal

    > I’m assuming this is one operation for one customer.

    No, it’s “scam as service” to whoever wants to pay. This time seeds are sent, which looks to be a mistake as it attracts the wrong kind of attention. In the past tufts of hair have been sent, and other worth nothing garbage..These frauds are a staple of Amazon, but Bezos make a shitload of money from them so the are welcomed and defended by feigning stupidity.

    Amazon = ugly beast

    The USPS looks like it’s dieing in the feild, killed by a thousand cuts, nine hundred of them by Amazon and is shipping Chinese crapola at a giant loss. To make up for all those losses shipping for Amazon, UPS, FedEx, and China, USPS raised rates by up to 400% on tiny pin pricks of capitalism.

    Reply
  17. William Hunter Duncan

    As a long-time gardener and gatherer, and wanderer of wildernesses, I have had a front row view of the ecological plague that globalization has visited upon America, esp since the 90’s. The list of invasive species that have wreaked havoc upon ecosystems is too long now to recite, and grows with every passing year without abating.

    And yet somehow people supposedly with a “green thumb” see a random packet of unmarked seeds from the other side of the globe and think, “I should plant these and see what happens!” Ignorance is bliss, I guess.

    All hail consumer globalization.

    Reply
  18. Dikaios Logos

    I had been waiting months for a small handcraft item from China when the seed story first broke. A couple days later, I received finally received my item. I had given up on it since it had, according to the tracking, just been sitting in Beijing for months. I’ve sent multiple parcels *sea mail* from China decades ago and this item, admittedly with different global conditions, was taking longer by *air mail*!

    My guess is that someone wanted to hack some or all of the following: China Post, USPS, U.S. customs, or air cargo carriers. All of these supply chain players have complicated procedures and savvy folks would know how to make the system more responsive to their needs. Whether it’s getting enough small packages like mine to justify a container full in order to move valuable inventory along or whether these are decoys for high-value illicit packages, there’s a real likelihood that certain parties see systems to be gamed and not necessarily Amazon’s systems at that.

    Reply
  19. Alex Cox

    All these comments and not one suggesting a benign explanation – that some Chinese eccentric, concerned about the deteriorating relations of the two superpowers, is sending random Americans presents.

    This might explain the paranoid media, and the panicked government response.

    Reply
  20. Peter VE

    A similar thing has happened to my wife. She keeps getting packages which she never ordered, sent to a truncated version of her name. One is sending various cigars, and the other is e.l.f. cosmetics. In no way is she in the target demographic for either product, but a friends’ teenage daughter is happy to take the e.l.f..
    We thought it might be a scam where someone had grabbed a CC#, and selling us a bad 10¢ cigar for $75, but nothing has shown up there.

    Reply

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