Across the United States and other countries, millions of people are surprised to receive packages they never ordered. In most cases, the source is a scam called “brushing.” Here’s why you’re getting free loot.
What Is Brushing?
If you’ve received a shipment through the post office or private couriers like UPS, FedEx, or the equivalent services in your country, that you didn’t order, you might be puzzled.
Maybe you were even further confused by the sheer randomness of what the shipment contained. Over the last few years, for example, I’ve received dozens of unsolicited packages, and if you have had a similar experience, you won’t be surprised by the package contents I’m about to list.
I’ve received vegetable peelers, motion-activated toilet bowl lights, flashlights, stickers, perfume atomizers, combs, beard balms, iPhone cases, smartphone car mounts, sunglasses, mouthguards, can openers, selfie sticks, letter openers, dish brushes, and other random small and cheap products I never ordered.
The answer to “Why am I receiving all these things I didn’t order?” is “brushing.” If you’ve never heard of it, you certainly wouldn’t be alone. Unlike some of the more old-fashioned scams out there—like mailing the victim a fraudulent invoice—brushing is a relatively new kind of fraud.
The basis of the fraud is fairly straightforward once you get past the “Who would send me these chipmunk-themed chip clips?” part.
Online storefronts with multiple sellers, such as Amazon.com, are intensely competitive. In an environment where hundreds, if not thousands, of online sellers are all trying to sell the same thing—hair brushes, jar openers, dog leashes, you name it—standing out from the crowd is the key to getting in front of consumers and making money.
And what better way to get in front of consumers than to have a 5-star rating and a best-seller slot, putting your product right in front of shoppers?
This is where the brushing scam comes in. The entire crux of the scam hinges on the fact that the product has to actually be purchased and shipped to juice the seller’s stats. These days fake reviews from un-verified purchasers just don’t cut it.
Unscrupulous sellers will buy their own products and ship them to addresses in the region they wish to boost their sales. That alone juices their sales numbers. Then, in most cases, they will also leave a review for the product giving it five stars and a positive written review.
Once they’ve done so enough times, the listing takes on a life of its own. Regular shoppers see a product with thousands of positive reviews, and they buy it because it stands out from other products that only have hundreds of reviews and lack a solid 5-star rating.
If you’ve ever bought a product with 5,000+ positive reviews and later thought, “Wow, this thing is a real piece of garbage. How did it get so many positive reviews?” there is a good chance the seller artificially boosted the reviews with brushing or similar scams.
Should You Be Worried About Brushing?
We’ve used the words “fraud” and “scam” quite a few times so far. And anytime you get something in the mail that you didn’t order or pay for, most people are going to worry a bit. Concern over your Amazon account being compromised or your identity being stolen is a completely natural reaction.
The reality, however, is that these sellers aren’t trying to scam or defraud you like they would if they were engaged in more traditional scams like the kind that flourish on Facebook Marketplace.
They’re trying to scam and defraud much bigger fish like Amazon and the massive Amazon customer base. They don’t want anything from you. The random thing you got in the mail, as far as they are concerned, is just the cost of doing business and, essentially, a gift.
They didn’t have to hack your Amazon account or steal your identity to send it. Most likely, they simply bought your name, along with hundreds of thousands of other names, from a marketing agency as if they were run-of-the-mill junk mail purveyors.
You got the random thing—be it a motion-activated toilet bowl light or a dog brush—because they needed somebody to mail their product to.
By all means, do check the accounts of online retailers you use to see if the order was actually placed using the account. There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe. But, you’ll likely find it wasn’t, however, and it’s just a random brushing scam delivery.
What Should You Do With the Unsolicited Package?
While we can’t give legal advice for every region of the world, in the United States, you have no obligation to do anything—including pay for—unsolicited deliveries.
So if you actually want whatever the random thing is you got in the mail, feel free to use it. Maybe the universe really wants you to have that motion-activated toilet bowl light. And hey, if you lucked out and got a free potato peeler, that’s a win—you should be replacing those yearly.
Though if the random thing in the mail is food, pet treats, cosmetics, or seeds, we recommend disposing of them. Consuming random things that come in the mail or planting unidentified seeds is a bad idea—and the USDA would really prefer you not plant unidentified and potentially invasive seeds in your backyard.
You can also, if you’re feeling particularly motivated, contact the seller platform the package was shipped through to flag the seller as a potential brushing scammer. That’s an upstanding citizen sort of thing to do, but we certainly won’t fault you for not spending your free time contacting Amazon to file a report that you received an unsolicited bottle opener.
In the end, the biggest takeaway isn’t that you should worry about your identity being stolen or whether or not you have to pay for the random product, but that you should take online reviews with a grain of salt because fake reviews are rampant.
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