Brushing (e-commerce)

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A suspicious seed package intercepted for analysis by the National Identification Service of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)

Brushing is a deceitful technique sometimes used in e-commerce to boost a seller's ratings by creating fake orders.[1][2][3][4]

Background[edit]

Most e-commerce sites rate sellers by multiple criteria and display these seller ratings to customers. Since a good rating can boost sales, these ratings are very important to sellers. The number of items sold is usually an important factor in that rating. Brushing consists of generating fake orders to boost the rating.

A seller can do this by paying someone a small amount to place a fake order, or just using another person's information to place an order themselves.[4] Because a shipment usually has to take place for an order to be considered valid by the e-commerce site, the seller will frequently ship an empty box or some cheap item.[1] These fake orders, if unnoticed, can boost the seller's rating, which can make it more likely that their items will appear at the top of search results on e-commerce sites. The person who "bought" the item may also post a positive rating or review, further artificially increasing the credibility of the item.[1][4]

Many e-commerce sites have recognized the problem and claim to actively combat brushing.[1][2] One company that has received a lot of attention is Alibaba, and in the prospectus they published before their initial public offering they even mentioned the problem.[4] Brushing also inflates the numbers reported on a company's financial statements, and therefore it also attracts the scrutiny of investors and market regulators. For instance, the US Securities and Exchange Commission opened a probe to investigate the validity of their data when Alibaba reported revenue of more than $14 billion on Singles Day.[5]

Past incidents[edit]

Unsolicited seeds analysed by APHIS Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) botanists at the National Identification Services (NIS) Lab in Beltsville, Maryland.

In July 2019, consumers were warned to be wary of unsolicited Amazon packages following reports of individuals receiving packages they never ordered as part of such brushing schemes. In Amazon's system, those making the original purchase are allowed to leave a verified review for the product, thus boosting the rating by posting a fake five-star review. The customer's address may have been previously obtained by a third-party seller, or even through a simple Internet search. While receiving such packages may not necessarily indicate any greater problem, they could in some cases be indicative of a data breach. Customers who believed they may have been the victim of brushing scams were advised to immediately notify the retailer in question, as well as change their password and possibly utilize credit-monitoring services.[6]

2020 Chinese seeds incident[edit]

In July 2020, thousands of packages of seeds marked with false descriptions such as earrings were received all over the world from China. Many early reports traced the story to a Facebook post by a woman in Tooele, Utah, which had drawn many of her neighbors with the same experience.[7][8][9][10] The mysterious seeds caused biosecurity concerns but were thought to be another brushing scam. Authorities such as DEFRA and USDA's APHIS[11] investigated and Kentucky agriculture commissioner Ryan Quarles said: "We don't have enough information to know if this is a hoax, a prank, an internet scam or an act of agricultural bioterrorism". China Post said that the mailing labels had been forged while Taiwan intended to fine a Chinese logistics company for transshipping contraband.[12]

In September 2020, an article by Motherboard which summarized the result of Freedom of Information Act requests relayed that a Utah lab reported, "Our seed lab has identified the following: rose, amaranth (not Palmer), 2 mints, False Horse Balm, Self Heal, Lespedeza and Sweet Potato."[13]

In late September 2020 the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food announced that Amazon had agreed to a voluntary US inbound seed quarantine, wherein they would delist seeds from outside the US that any seller attempted to sell into the US.[14] The American Seed Trade Association gave a statement saying that this was their understanding also.[15]

On Tuesday, September 29, 2020, the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture said it had so far received 36 complaints about unsolicited seeds. These reports came in across eight states.[16]

Alibaba and eBay's plant security practices were investigated by James Comer, Ranking Member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, at the start of October 2020.[17]

Seed mailings occurred again, following a hiatus, in October 2020 in Marion County, Alabama.[18]

In November 2020, the Arizona Department of Agriculture said that seed mailings had slowed but not stopped. Most reports were from the Phoenix and Tucson areas, although the entire state had reports. The seeds were ornamentals, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and wheat. The seeds were noted for their potential to spread viruses and other diseases.[19]

In November 2020, the Australian Department of Agriculture said that they had received 228 reports and had decided to start using a new x-ray system. Unlike the existing x-ray scanners used at borders, these would use automated processing of the x-ray images themselves, which the DoA expected to yield more thorough results.[20] For seeds that were not caught by the scanners, the Department asked Australians to report seed mailings using a website.

In February 2021, USDA APHIS issued new rules regarding buying and selling seeds and live plants from other countries.[21][22]

Resolution[edit]

Amazon has stated that all of the orders it looked into were legitimate orders, in statements in summer 2020 and March 2021; a specific brusher or set of brushers responsible for the seed orders were never identified, and the USDA had not found "direct evidence of brushing".[23] By the beginning of October 2020, the USDA and Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry considered the mystery largely solved, blaming both real seed orders that were merely mailed from locations the buyers did not expect, and truly unsolicited mailings.[24] An Atlantic investigation in 2021 found that many of the people reporting unsolicited seeds had seed orders in their Amazon ordering history they had forgotten about, often many months before and shipping long-delayed, or were part of "gift groups" with public wish lists that others could order items for them, concluding, "in every single case that we were able to research fully, we found a convincing connection between a mystery package and an earlier order."[23]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d "They Call It 'Brushing': The Dark Art of Alibaba Sales Fakery". The Wall Street Journal. 3 March 2015.
  2. ^ a b "China's ecommerce sites try to sweep away 'brushing'". Financial Times. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  3. ^ Shepard, Wade. "Americans Are Receiving Unordered Parcels From Chinese E-Criminals – And Can't Do Anything To Stop Them". Forbes. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d Fountain, Nick; Malone, Kenny; Wei, Sandy (27 April 2018). "Episode 838: A Series of Mysterious Packages". Planet Money. NPR.
  5. ^ Bomey, Nathan; Weise, Elizabeth (25 May 2016). "SEC probes Alibaba's Singles Day; stock drops". USA Today. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  6. ^ Passy, Jacob (16 July 2019). "Beware of unsolicited packages after Amazon Prime Day – they could be part of a scam". MarketWatch. Retrieved 16 July 2019.
  7. ^ WAPT ABC 16 Jackson (28 July 2020). "Mystery seeds from China". YouTube. Jackson, Mississippi.
  8. ^ Herbets, Adam (22 July 2020). "Mysterious seeds sent from China to Utah". KSTU Fox 13 Salt Lake City. I opened them up and they were seeds," Culley said. "Obviously they’re not jewelry!" ... "There was an article that I found in the UK saying this has been happening over there, and they are bad seeds, they are invasive," Culley said. "I hope that it's nothing too serious… don't throw them in the garbage. Don't plant them. Don't touch them.
  9. ^ Bremner, Jade (24 July 2020). "Utah residents are being mailed unidentified seeds from China". Newsweek. Retrieved 23 April 2021.
  10. ^ Yancey-Bragg, N'dea (27 July 2020). "People in nearly 30 states mailed unsolicited packets of seeds that may be from China, officials say". USA Today. Retrieved 23 April 2021.
  11. ^ "USDA Investigates Packages of Unsolicited Seeds from China". APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service). USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  12. ^ Elle Hunt (1 August 2020), "Sowing doubt: people around world receive mystery seed parcels", The Guardian
  13. ^ Koebler, Jason (8 September 2020). "Hundreds of Americans Planted 'Chinese Mystery Seeds'". www.vice.com. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  14. ^ "Utah officials say online shopping change could block 'mystery seeds' - KSTU Fox 13 Now". KSTU. 29 September 2020. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  15. ^ "Amazon to Remove Listings for Seeds for Planting by Non-U.S. Residents - American Seed Trade Association". ASTA. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  16. ^ Willians, Lachlan (30 September 2020). "Ministry Records 36 Cases of Mystery Seeds Received After Internet Purchases - The Rio Times". The Rio Times. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  17. ^ Boyanton, Megan U. (8 October 2020). "Alibaba, eBay Targeted in Chinese 'Mystery Seed' Mail Inquiry". Bloomberg Government. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  18. ^ Thompson, Tiffany (23 October 2020). "Mystery seeds in the mail are back". WAFF48. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  19. ^ Hunter Brownstein. "Arizona Officials Have Identified Some Mystery Seeds Sent From China - KJZZ Phoenix".
  20. ^ Taylor, Josh (7 November 2020). "Australia trials new technology to intercept mystery seeds sent in the mail". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 November 2020.
  21. ^ "USDA Clarifies Rules for Buying and Selling Seeds and Plants Online From Other Countries". APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service). USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  22. ^ "Buying and Selling Plants and Seeds Online". APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service). USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  23. ^ a b "The Truth Behind the Amazon Mystery Seeds: Why did so many Americans receive strange packages they didn't think they'd ordered?", The Atlantic
  24. ^ "Mystery of Chinese seeds near solved | State Politics | theadvocate.com".

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