When Rachel Goodale picked up her mail two weeks ago, she noticed a package from Amazon. The contents were benign but bizarre: a plastic cellphone case she didn’t remember ordering.
“I called Amazon, because I thought my account was compromised. They told me it was a gift,” Goodale, 33, of Riverhead, said.
The so-called gifts — cables, joint supplements, a compression sock, a wall clock — kept coming, nearly every day.
“I have quite a pile of stuff in my house now,” she said.
Goodale is on the receiving end of a seemingly endless torrent of mystery Amazon packages — close to a dozen as of Saturday morning. The packages are the endpoint of an online scheme called brushing, that allows overseas companies to boost their standing on Amazon through written reviews, while leaving unsuspecting people like Goodale with unwanted “gifts.”
In a vast online economy, many try to game the system with paid Yelp reviews or purchased social media likes. On Amazon, lots of positive reviews can attract customers and boost a product’s visibility.
“These companies overseas figured out that, OK, you can buy just enough product and you can go ahead and write reviews,” said New York-based tech expert Lance Ulanoff. “The secret sauce is they make it seem real and they have it shipped to real addresses.”
Ulanoff said the same features designed to prevent this kind of fraud are actually what puts Amazon at the center of the scheme. The site requires a person to make a purchase before they can write a review there, and “verified purchase” labels on reviews indicate a reviewer actually bought a particular product.
Other instances of brushing have popped up across the continent. According to news reports, a Massachusetts couple in their 60s received a stream of gadgets, such as Bluetooth speakers in October. A Pennsylvania woman recently received dozens of packages of hair ties. And two Canadian colleges reported receiving box after box of headphones and sex toys addressed to campus buildings.
Amazon is investigating reports of customers receiving items they did not order, and so far has found that sellers involved did not receive the recipients’ names and shipping addresses from Amazon, the company said in a statement. Sellers that engage in this type of practice are in violation of Amazon’s policies, a representative said.
The representative also said the company has found few reviews linked to reportedly unsolicited packages.
Goodale said she gave up trying to call Amazon because of the frequency of the deliveries, which come with no invoices or return addresses other than Amazon warehouses.
The products sent to her, like a child’s convertible scooter, have largely positive reviews on Amazon.com, though it’s unclear if any are linked to the items she received.
In this scheme, companies just need to find real addresses — like Goodale’s — to send products to, and that’s easy in an age of data breaches and social media. Then they can write a legitimate-looking review, with both Amazon and future customers none the wiser.
“In a way, Amazon is perfectly set up for this scam,” Ulanoff said.
Goodale said the free products aren’t as much fun as one would think. She’s not sure what to do with it all, and the volume of junk has taken over a corner in her home.
“I don’t need any of this, so it’s really annoying,” she said. “I’m planning to donate them, but I don’t even know if [others] they need this stuff.”