The USDA issued a statement urging those who have received the seeds to not plant them, ingest them or even throw them in the garbage. This comes right as the mysterious seeds were showing up in social media in pictures being sent in the mail to unsuspecting residents throughout the United States and United Kingdom.
The USDA is suggesting this is a brushing scam being executed in an effort to strengthen sales by touting fake Amazon reviews.
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. USDA is currently collecting seed packages from recipients and will test their contents and determine if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment.
So what if we plant the seeds?
Certain plants can have disastrous consequences to large swaths of land if they outcompete native plants. Planting these seeds could also theoretically introduce new pests or plant diseases.
For starters, there are plants that are annoying to some and downright dangerous to others, like poison ivy or poison oak. But then you have plants like juniper, rosemary and different grasses which can be highly flammable and promote wildfires endangering property and lives.
So far 14 varieties of seeds have been identified from packages that have been handed over to the USDA. So far they are all common seeds that don’t point to the kind of environmental guerrilla assault we’re all suspecting at this point. But the fact that different seeds are being sent has led to speculation that the sender could be deliberately sending seeds that will outcompete local plants.
Why can’t we just throw them in the garbage?
The reasoning for the guidance from the USDA against disposing the seeds in a trash receptable is really two fold. The seeds could eventually end up in a landfill and sprout years or even decades after they are disposed of, and even though they are backed up trying to indentify and investiage the seeds, they want you to turn them into them to see if it will help them figure out exactly what’s going on here.
Many people have Already planted the seeds.
One man in Arkansas apparently planted the seeds and reported that something just started “growing like crazy” after he put Miracle Grow on it. The plant has a large white fruit and orange flowers, much resembling a squash plant. The Guardian reported that at least four others have planted the seeds that the USDA urged remain unplanted simply by mistake. The plants that have been yielded so far seem innocuous enough, everything from tomatoes to rosemary has been identified after the seeds were planted.
A woman in Kentucky said she had thought the seeds were sent from her planting club. “I didn’t realize it was a thing until I saw it on the news,” the woman who ended up with a bright green-leafed plant, told WBKO news
Another woman in Sherwood planted the seeds in a pot, thinking they were a gift from members of a plant related group that she participates in. Nothing sprouted from the pot and she thought nothing of the matter until she saw a report on the news about seeds from China randomly being sent across the United States and United Kingdom.
Isn’t this a lot of trouble just for some Amazon reviews?
As of right now all the plants that have sprouted seem innocent enough, but this certainly doesn’t act as proof that this is a simple brushing scam. Why would someone go so far as to send out potentially hundreds of thousands of packets of seeds in order to garner positive reviews on Amazon?
China’s Foreign Ministry said that mailing labels on the seed packages were forged and that the country has asked the U.S. to return the packages to China for investigation. The logistics of sending out this much mail, let alone forging it in such a way that these packages actually travel through legitimate means overseas and end up being delivered to residential homes in first world countries does bode the question of why someone would go through all this work just for some positive reviews.
However, most people would be surprised to know that a recent study found well over half of Amazon reviews are fake and not only will scammers go through the trouble of spinning up hundreds of different virtual machines with separate IP addresses in order to fool Amazon into thinking they are legitimate customers reviewing a product, but they will then use a similar process to leave fake negative reviews on honest sellers products in an effort to draw more customers to the cheaper and less reliable products they are peddling.
The fake Amazon review business is surprisingly sophisticated and lucrative. So lucrative, in fact, that one woman admitted to a fake review scheme where she was given $15,000 of products on Amazon for free so that she could write positive reviews on them. The scammers refunded her money after she legitimately paid for these items on Amazon. From Amazon’s perspective, a fake review scheme this sophisticated is incredibly hard to track down and stop.
There is action being taken against these scammers. The Federal Trade Commission has brought lawsuits against companies that outsource the arduous process of getting fake reviews past Amazons algorithms, showing that these scammers can’t amuck unchecked forever. There is even a website, FakeSpot.com that leverages AI to analyze reviews for a product on Amazon to let you know if the product you are looking at has fake reviews.
While the USDA has initially downplayed this as a simple brushing scam, they are taking the investigation seriously and collecting seed packets from those that have received them. We’ll keep an eye on any announcements from the USDA and update this article accordingly.