KA Hanna is a technology blogger with a special interest in home, family, health, and internet security.
A Mysterious Package Arrives
The package came in the mail to my friend's house—a small, innocuous bubble mailer. While the address and phone number on the package were correct, the name was not. A quick check confirmed that there were no neighbors named "Lionel C__," meaning that the package was not misdirected or misdelivered.
Concerned that he was a victim of identity theft, my friend opened the package. It contained a pretty, but obviously inexpensive, pendant necklace adorned with a blue hummingbird. He looked for a packing slip or a gift receipt, but found nothing. The address label showed that the necklace came from the Philippines, with no clear sender’s name, only a PO box number. Since the sender's name and return address were unclear, my friend had no way to alert the sending company that they’d sent the necklace to the wrong person.
My friend wondered if some nefarious character had gotten hold of his credit card and had embarked on a charging spree. The credit card company quickly put concerns regarding identity theft or credit card theft to rest, so my friend concluded that the purchase was probably a mistake, that whoever sent the package would soon realize it, and everything would be corrected.
A week or so later, the second package arrived. Again, the package came from the Philippines, addressed to the non-existent "Lionel C__" and to my friend's address. This time it contained a pair of earrings. Again, the sender’s name and return address were unclear, there was no packing slip or gift receipt, and no suspicious charges on his credit card.
The Scam, Uncovered
When the third package arrived, this time from Fiji, it was almost comical. "I'm not laughing at you," I said to my friend, "I'm laughing with you."
My friend was a victim of “brushing,” a relatively recent sales and marketing scam that uses the Internet and mail, and that originates from overseas. There, companies create fake customer accounts, have the accounts "order" actual items sold by the companies, and then send the items to real addresses in the United States.
The companies are seeking positive “verified buyer” reviews for their online storefronts, which can be on seller sites like Amazon.com. Once an item is delivered, the fake customer writes the positive review in the guise of a “verified buyer.” Positive reviews can entice real buyers to believe that the items in question are well-regarded, which in turn will increase sales.
Trying to Trace the Seller
Out of curiosity, I attempted to trace the packages back to the seller, a task that would prove to be impossible. Victims of brushing receive packages without the typical identifiers, such as the seller’s real name, address, phone number, or sales tracking number. The "Lionel packages" did have a QR code on the mailing label, so I started there.
In the case of the pendant necklace, a QR code was not readable by a QR reader app. The QR code for the earrings did hold the item number, but no company name or identifying information.
Using online searches, I traced the SKU number of the hummingbird pendant back to several sources, including sellers on Alibaba, Amazon.com, and Etsy. However, there was no way to tell if any of these sellers sent the pendant.
The other clues were the return addresses on the mailing labels. Using Google maps, I looked for a brick-and-mortar location to match. The Fiji address did not map to a specific building. The address in the Philippines did not appear to be a real postal address.
Interestingly, the Philippines return address popped up on a couple of Google searches. Other victims of the brushing scam have received inexpensive goods from the same return address. One victim received a small packet of plant seeds. Another received a small metal tool of dubious value.
I sifted through "verified buyer" reviews for the pendant on Amazon, to see if Lionel's name came up. Since Amazon allows "user" names as opposed to real names, it was impossible to tell if the fake buyer left any reviews.
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I searched for the name "Lionel C__" on the Internet, and on an ancestry database. While the name did exist, most of my search matches were to deceased individuals on the other side of the US. There were no matches nearby.
Lastly, I attempted to find the seller of the earrings by way of his "signature" on the mailing label. With only a last name, it was too vague to find anything of significance.
Clearly, the brushing scam worked for these companies. The company/seller of the goods could easily stay hidden, positive reviews could be placed, and no one would be the wiser.
Is Brushing Really a Crime?
While brushing seems like a victimless crime on the surface, it is illegal in the United States and in many other countries, including China, for companies to use deceptive sales tactics. This includes creating fake online reviews from fake buyers.
The difficulty is in catching the criminals. Companies in China are sophisticated in using the scam, setting up fake buyers in other countries (like the Philippines and Fiji), thereby making it impossible to trace the fake buyers back to a real company. Often, the buyer may "order" expensive goods, but the company will send cheap knockoffs instead. The fake buyer, however, will write a glowing review of the expensive product. This gives the unscrupulous seller an unfair sales advantage over legitimate and honest sellers in the online marketplace, where positive reviews help drive sales.
It is extremely profitable for companies to use deceptive practices like brushing. The items that are sent are typically very inexpensive. Overseas companies in countries like China have access to a mail system that allows them to cheaply mail packages to the United States. Because of the potential for a high payoff, it is much cheaper for these companies to engage in a brushing scam than it is to pay for a legitimate sales and marketing campaign.
Victim of Brushing? Here's What to Do
If you find yourself the unwitting target of brushing, you should still protect yourself, even if you feel you are getting “compensated” because of the free goods you are receiving. You don’t know what else that company will do with your personal identifying information. Some things you should do include:
- Put a fraud alert on your name with the major credit reporting agencies. This will protect your credit should anyone attempt to open any new accounts in your name.
- If the packages are coming from Amazon or Alibaba, let them know you are a victim of brushing. Amazon will attempt to track down the company and prevent them from selling on their site.
- Write “Return to Sender” on the package and have the post office attempt to send the package back.
- If the packages are coming to your house but addressed to someone who does not live there (i.e. a fake name), go to your post office and file a complaint with the postmaster.
- Continue to monitor your credit card for fraudulent charges.
Finally, if you suspect you are a victim of identity theft, learn the steps to take towards recovery at the Identity Theft website run by the federal government.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2019 KA Hanna
KA Hanna (author) from America's Finest City on August 29, 2019:
Thanks for your comment, Cynthia!
Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on August 29, 2019:
Wow, I had never heard of this but recently received a plastic french-fry type maker that I was pretty darn sure I'd never ordered (although I have done some impulsive orders in the past). I thank you for posting this information. Good article.
KA Hanna (author) from America's Finest City on May 14, 2019:
Thanks for reading my article, James!
James A Watkins from Chicago on May 14, 2019:
Very interesting. I had not heard of brushing. Thanks for the enlightenment.