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

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

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]

In July 2020, thousands of packages of seeds marked with false descriptions such as earrings were received all over the world from China. The mysterious seeds caused biosecurity concerns but were thought to be another brushing scam. Authorities such as DEFRA and USDA 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.[7]


  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 2018-05-06.
  3. ^ Shepard, Wade. "Americans Are Receiving Unordered Parcels From Chinese E-Criminals -- And Can't Do Anything To Stop Them". Forbes. Retrieved 2018-05-06.
  4. ^ a b c d Fountain, Nick; Malone, Kenny; Wei, Sandy (27 April 2018), Episode 838: A Series of Mysterious Packages, 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 (July 16, 2019). "Beware of unsolicited packages after Amazon Prime Day — they could be part of a scam". MarketWatch. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  7. ^ Elle Hunt (1 August 2020), "Sowing doubt: people around world receive mystery seed parcels", The Guardian

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