News

The USDA and the case of the mystery seed packets

by Ian Johanson
for The Beacon

The seeds inside the package look familiar, but anyone receiving such packages are urged to not open them. — Beacon staff photo

Mysterious, unsolicited packages of seeds from China have turned up in all 50 states. In recent months, they have appeared in Sheboygan County. The packages have prompted considerable federal and state resources to investigate the matter. The government’s working theory? The seeds play a bizarre part in an online scam operation.

The Beacon had a chance to observe such seeds firsthand from a staff member who received one of these packages at home. Inside a package purportedly from “Tina” in Nanning City, China, delivered by the United States Postal Service, were eight small sealed packages of vaguely familiar-looking seeds, and nothing else.

In late July, a U.S. government program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called “Smuggling Interdiction and Trade Compliance,” which monitors e-commerce, first noticed a significant rise in reports from U.S. citizens who received the packages.

As of August 31, according to the USDA, 8,507 such packages were collected. 2,410 packets were examined and 321 different species of seed were identified.

A portion of the shipping label on one seed packet, clearly marked as originating from China. — Beacon staff photo

“At this point, we have not identified any link to agro-terrorism,” a USDA Questions and Answers document about the seeds states. “Our main concern is the potential for these seeds to introduce damaging pests or diseases that could harm U.S. agriculture. As we collect the seed packages, we are routing them to APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] botanists who are examining the seeds to determine their species, including whether there are any federally listed noxious weeds. Overall, we have not found anything of major concern.”

“We are not aware of any human health risks at this time. In an abundance of caution, people should wear gloves and limit touching the material,” the document states.

With the worst fears addressed, the government believes the seeds form part of a fraudulent scheme to boost internet sales for sellers on e-commerce sites. The scam is called “brushing.”

Here’s how the scam works, according to the USDA:

A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, National Identification Services (NIS) botanist examines seeds from an unsolicited package of seeds under a microscope.
USDA Photo

“We believe these packages are part of an internet brushing scam where an online seller—usually overseas—creates false online accounts and posts positive reviews of their products to boost their rating on the e-commerce site. Before an e-commerce site will consider an order valid, a shipment must be initiated to complete the transaction. Sellers carrying out brushing scams will often ship inexpensive items to complete these transactions. The more transactions a seller completes, the higher their rating and the more likely that their items will appear at the top of search results on an e-commerce site.”

There is a potential harm to seed package recipients, though likely not from the seeds themselves. Since the recipient’s name and address were used as part of the scam, in some but not all cases this could indicate that personal information has been compromised. The Better Business Bureau recommends contacting the e-commerce site, if known; changing account passwords; and keeping a close eye on credit reports and credit card bills.

If you receive a seed package: The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) says do not plant or throw the seeds away; retain the original packaging; if the seeds are in sealed packaging, do not open the sealed package; and report the seeds using an online form,  found at: https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/News_Media/UnsolicitedSeedsRelease.aspx

DATCP’s main phone number, for those without Internet access, is 608-224-5012.

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