Ever find a tower of boxes from Amazon on your doorstep, boxes filled with items you never ordered? This might feel like an unexpected windfall, especially if those boxes are filled with Bluetooth speakers, electric toothbrushes, tablets, or other useful items.
But don't get too excited. Those packages outside your door might be the result of a brushing scam.
The goal of this scam? Companies, often based in foreign countries, are always on the hunt for positive online reviews. Brushing scams help them generate these reviews, even though they're fake.
These scam reviews can help these questionable companies boost their business ratings, but the fact that these packages showed up at your door? That's troubling. It could mean these companies somehow obtained your personal information.
How brushing scams work
Brushing scams made headlines in July 2020 when unmarked seed packets began arriving in mailboxes across the United States and Canada. The seeds came with a return address in China, but with no explanation of why they arrived. No one who received the seeds ordered them.
The seeds appear to be part of a brushing scam.
Such scams work like this: Unordered packages, either from Amazon or other large companies, show up at your door without you ordering them. Often, these packages come with no return address. Usually, the items inside the packages are lightweight and cheap to ship.
The Better Business Bureau says that the companies sending these items are simply trying to improve the ratings of their products at ecommerce sites. This leads to more online sales. They are using your address — which they probably somehow found online — to make it appear that you are a verified buyer of the merchandise. The companies will then post fake online reviews praising the products they sent, a review that you supposedly wrote.
This might seem like a lot of effort. But a large number of online reviews can significantly increase sales. Getting those reviews is seen as worth the effort of mailing products to fake customers. It’s why brushing schemes so often involve lightweight products that are cheaper to ship.
To review a product on Amazon, you need to actually order it. Amazon labels you as a verified buyer. Once you've earned this label, you can post an online review about the product you ordered. When a company sends you its product without you first ordering it, they turn you into a verified buyer. They can then post a positive review about their products online, all under your name.
By running brushing scams, these companies are also fraudulently increasing their sales numbers. As the Better Business Bureau notes, even fake sales — as these are — look good for the companies sending these products. A rise in sales might convince other customers to spend more on the company's products.
Why you should be concerned about brushing scams
You might not worry much about brushing scams. After all, free stuff is showing up at your home.
But you should be worried. That’s because the company sending the products to you obtained your mailing address somehow. Often, they receive addresses from marketing companies. Other times, they obtain addresses from data breaches that have exposed the personal information of thousands or millions of victims.
This is bad enough. But you don’t know what other information these unethical companies obtained about you. Maybe these companies not only found your mailing address but also your Social Security number, bank account information or online passwords.
Companies can misuse this information in several ways. They might sell it to other parties. They might use it to access your online bank account or credit card portals. Once they have this access, they can drain your bank accounts or run up charges on your credit cards.
If companies have your Social Security number, they could use it to help create a fake identity in your name. They can then use their information to apply for loans or credit cards in your name.
Can you keep the items?
If you do receive packages that you didn't order, you are allowed to keep them, according to guidance from the Federal Trade Commission. According to the FTC, federal laws prohibit people from sending you merchandise that you didn't order and then charging you for it.
What to do if you suspect you’re part of a brushing scheme
If you suspect you’ve been targeted in a brushing scam, don’t ignore it. Instead, take these steps:
1. Change your passwords
The biggest worry is that someone might have gained access to your personal information. This might mean that criminals have cracked your passwords and can get into your online accounts. Your immediate first step, then, should be to change the passwords to your credit card, banking, streaming, and other online accounts. You want to make sure to keep cybercriminals and scammers away from your financial and personal information.
2. Check your credit card and bank account statements
Next, log into your online bank account and credit card portals. Look for any suspicious purchases or withdrawals. If criminals have gained access to your online accounts, they might seek to empty your bank account or rack up credit card charges. If you notice anything suspicious, immediately contact your credit card provider and bank.
3. Report the scam
The Better Business Bureau recommends that you contact the retailers if you are involved in a brushing scam. If the packages you didn't order arrived from Amazon, then, contact Amazon's customer service department. Amazon can then perform an investigation and take action against the scam company.
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