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What You Should Know About Brushing Scams On Amazon

Last summer, thousands of US residents in all 50 states were alarmed after receiving mysterious packages of seeds postmarked from China randomly. Seeds which they had never ordered.

At first, it seemed unsettling—so unsettling that the USDA declared an official investigation into their origin. Eventually it was found to be neither a malicious threat nor an elaborate prank, but a relatively harmless scheme known as a brushing scam.

Except brushing scams are neither harmless nor particularly elaborate. A brushing scam occurs when third party sellers, often based abroad, send small packages of unordered merchandise to random addresses found online for the purposes of posting fake reviews. While it might seem either annoying or amusing to be a recipient of a brushing scam, there’s a very real threat. Personal information could be used for criminal activities. Here’s how Amazon is trying to combat the threat of brushing.

How Do Brushing Scams Work?

Brushing scams first originated roughly five years ago in China, where eCommerce accounted for over 50 percent of all retail sales in 2020. Simply put, a manufacturer or third party seller will send packages of merchandise at random to publicly available addresses in order to manipulate reviews by posting a glowing 5 star testimonial under that person’s name. No actual payment is made for a purchase; any purchase goes directly back to the seller. Reviews carry weight. It’s been estimated that 95 percent of online shoppers use reviews to guide their purchasing decisions, with 72 percent relying on positive reviews before taking any action. But it’s easy to spot a fake review, especially if overwhelmingly positive reviews stem from unverified purchases on Amazon. Verified purchases carry a much stronger sense of legitimacy, as both consumers and brands will attest to. In fact, one of Amazon’s largest selling points has been the relative objectivity of their reviews.

How Amazon Is Fighting Brushing Scams

Review manipulation has been a long running plague on any eCommerce platform, and Amazon’s no different. While they may have banned incentivized reviews in 2016 after numerous complaints, brushing scams are often perpetrated by sellers themselves using any number of throwaway email addresses. But Amazon does track IP addresses and can easily flag sellers for any number of violations—including establishing multiple accounts.

While it’s not illegal to receive an unsolicited package, Amazon’s official policy clearly prohibits third-party sellers from sending them to both potential and current customers. While the Federal Trade Commission has indicated that recipients of a brushing scam are entitled to keep or donate unordered merchandise, there’s still a chance that personal information has been compromised. This isn’t unheard of to occur between rival sellers, so it’s suggested that you take the necessary steps of reviewing any sensitive information regularly and reporting the incident directly to both the Federal Trade Commission as well as Amazon’s customer service. That unsolicited “gift” you received could be a very real Trojan horse.

Amazon takes review manipulation very seriously, and analyzes millions of reviews each day to proactively prevent doctored testimonials. While sellers who violate it are typically barred for life, Amazon’s anti-manipulation policy clearly states that they actively pursue lawsuits against paid and doctored reviews (most recently, participating in a landmark $9.5 Million false advertising suit against an Oregon-based dietary supplement manufacturer) and frequently refer any violating parties to federal and civil criminal authorities.

But those mysterious seeds from China? They turned out to be duds. Just like any illegitimate seller on Amazon, they crumble once they’re exposed.


Color More Lines provides white glove, global account management of your eCommerce platforms so mission-driven companies can focus on new product development, branding and growth strategies. Find out more at Color More Lines.

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