If you find a package sitting on your front porch and it's something you didn’t order, you might want to hold off on telling the world that you’ve just scored a freebie. In reality, what probably happened is that you just became the latest victim in a rapidly growing shakedown called “brushing.”
In order to improve ratings and sales of their products, unscrupulous sellers may send a small item like a hand warmer or pet nail trimmer to an unsuspecting customer. They then try to fly under a platform like Amazon's radar by adding in a fake review using that customer’s name. The result is unearned improvements to search results, credibility, and sales for the products.
Many of the people behind brushing scams tend to be third-party online sellers. They're often based in foreign countries and are trying to build up their cache of positive reviews to create more sales. While that may appear innocent on the surface, there are layers of potential issues below -- the biggest of which is that your private and personal information is being sold to unknown third parties.
The long tail of a brushing scam
In order for a seller to send something to someone, they have to have that person’s name and address. If the company sending the products purchased no more than someone's name and address from a marketing service, that – and the fake review – is possibly the only harm done. However, if the company obtained addresses from a data breach that exposed the private information of millions of people, the damage could be much worse.
“Companies can misuse this information in several ways. They might sell it to other parties,” said LifeLock’s Dan Rafter. “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.”
Rafter said if one of those companies laid their hands on someone’s Social Security number, they could use it to help create a fake identity in the victim’s name and then use that information to apply for loans or credit cards.
How to protect yourself
In ConsumerAffairs' research on the rise of brushing scams, we found several suggestions that consumers should consider if they get an unsolicited package delivered to them.
Notify the retailer. If the item came from Amazon, the company says the first thing to do is check with friends and family or to contact Amazon Customer Service to confirm it's not a gift meant for you. If you confirm that the package was addressed to you but wasn't ordered by you or anyone you know, you should report the package online by going to the Report Unwanted Package form.
“Third-party sellers are prohibited from sending unsolicited packages to customers, and we take action when our policies are violated, including by withholding payments, suspending selling privileges, and reporting bad actors to law enforcement,” an Amazon spokesperson told ConsumerAffairs.
Consumers should also contact Amazon if someone has written a fake review using their name. The retailer is very serious about fake reviews, and your help could take more bad actors out of the game.
Change your account passwords. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises consumers who receive packages that they didn't order to change their passwords since it may be a sign that their personal information has been compromised.
Monitor your credit reports and credit card charges. To improve account security, the BBB also suggests keeping a close eye on credit reports and credit/debit card charges.
You are allowed to keep the merchandise. Believe it or not, you have a legal right to keep unordered merchandise. “By law, companies can’t send unordered merchandise to you, then demand payment,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said. “That means you never have to pay for things you get but didn’t order. You also don’t have to return unordered merchandise. You’re legally entitled to keep it as a free gift.”