By Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press
MONTREAL — The packages of mysterious seeds that have been making unsolicited appearances in mailboxes across North America are drawing attention to an online review scam known as “brushing” that has recently appeared in Canada.
The scheme, where sellers send unsolicited packages to customers and then write fake glowing reviews for products, may seem innocuous but could signal a more serious identity fraud problem, experts say.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency warned gardeners last week not to plant any seeds they received in the mail without ordering, warning that they could be harmful to the environment.
“These unauthorized seeds could be from invasive plants or they could even carry plant pests, which can be harmful when introduced into Canada,” said the agency, which also asked people not to compost the seeds or throw them in the garbage where they could sprout.
“They could invade agricultural and natural areas, causing serious damage to our plant resources and the environment.”
While Canadian authorities have not provided a theory, the United States Department of Agriculture has said there’s no reason to believe it’s anything other than brushing, “where sellers send unsolicited items to unsuspecting consumers and then post false reviews to boost sales.”
Jessie St-Cyr, a spokeswoman with the Better Business Bureau, says this type of scam recently began popping up in Canada.
She says sellers send light or inexpensive items such as seeds or ping pong balls to people so they appear to be verified customers when reviews are posted online in their names.
While customers usually aren’t charged for the items, she said recipients should change their passwords for online retail sites and verify bank statements to ensure fraudsters aren’t accessing sensitive information, such as credit card numbers.
“If they are able to get your information, your name and address, they would be able to access some more private information,” she said.
While the organization hasn’t received any reports linked directly to the seeds, she said some people have reported receiving items such as combs or earbuds.
St-Cyr said it’s hard to get data on the scope of the problem, because many customers who receive items they didn’t order usually don’t consider it a problem.
But she says customers who receive unwanted items, including seeds, should report them to authorities and the Better Business Bureau.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, which collects data on fraud and identity theft, said it considers brushing to be a type of identity fraud, although it had not yet received reports of seeds.
“We have some limited reporting of consumers receiving unsolicited items via mail/courier that were never order(ed),” the centre wrote in an email.
“This is a new trend and something we are looking into but don’t have a lot of reporting on it.”
Terry Cutler, an online security expert, says online fraudsters can obtain people’s names in addresses in a number of ways, including purchasing them or through a data breach.
He said those who are targeted should monitor their credit because “there could be an identity theft problem.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency did not respond to a question about whether it believes the seeds are associated with brushing.
“The CFIA is exploring all possibilities to determine the origin of the seeds and the nature of the seeds themselves,” the agency wrote.
However, it noted that importing certain food, plants, animals or products into the country, deliberately or not, “can pose a serious risk to our Canadian resources and economy.” It asked consumers to consult the CFIA’s website before ordering any such products from overseas.