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USDA warns mystery seeds from China could be part of scam

Alex Jokich
Updated: July 30, 2020 06:20 PM
Created: July 30, 2020 06:02 PM

The mystery seeds being delivered to people across the country may be part of a "brushing scam," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A brushing scam typically involves a foreign, third-party seller mailing unsolicited items and then writing a glowing review of the product online. Because the item was delivered through the mail, the review would show up as a "verified purchase" on sites like Amazon.

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The Better Business Bureau said those fake, positive reviews boost the products' ratings.

"For them, that's gold," said Bao Vang, communications director at the BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota. "Of course they want that because that only adds to the legitimacy of an item or product and that eventually leads to more sales."

The USDA said people in at least 22 states have received the seeds, along with people in Canada, Australia and Europe.

"It kind of is spooky to me," said Denise Hackel, who received a package of seeds at her home in Elmwood, Wisconsin.

Hackel's package was stamped with "China Post" at the top. The envelope also read "description of contents: ring." She said there was no ring inside, only a small packet of black seeds.

"It was really uncomfortable to me," Hackel said. "I did not plant them. I barely touched them. I washed my hands right after I touched them."

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said it is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, along with state agriculture departments to investigate the situation. 

Minnesota residents say they're receiving 'mystery seeds' from China

The USDA is collecting seed packages from recipients and testing their contents to determine if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment. So far, the samples appear harmless.

"We have identified 14 different species of seeds, including mustard, cabbage and morning glory," said Osama El-Lissy, the deputy administrator of the department's plant protection program. "Some are herbs, like mint, sage, rosemary, lavender. And then other seeds like hibiscus and roses."

As of Thursday, about 600 Minnesotans have reported packets of seeds they did not order, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. A spokesperson said certified seed analysts are attempting to identify the seeds and all of the samples will ultimately be shipped to the USDA for further analysis and destruction.

The BBB said, even if there is no physical risk from the seeds, people who have received them may have had their personal information compromised by scammers.

"Be very cautious about receiving these items," Vang said. "Someone around the world has your information and that puts your personal identity and your bank accounts and credit report in jeopardy."

The BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota recommends the following for people who receive one of these unsolicited packages:

  • Check your personal information. The package may be a sign that your personal information has been compromised. Keep a close eye on your credit report, bank accounts and credit card bills. Looking up your own name and address using a search engine can, in some cases, reveal how public your information has become.
  • Report possible scams to BBB Scam Tracker.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture shared these tips for people who received seeds:

  • Do not throw away the package or its contents.
  • Do not plant the seeds.
  • Contact the Arrest the Pest line at 1-888-545-6684 or arrest.the.pest@state.mn.us and provide your name, contact information, and the date the package was received. Officials will coordinate shipping the packaging and contents to the MDA Seed Program.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection also recommended the following:

  • Do not plant or throw away the seeds.
  • If the seeds are in sealed packaging, do not open the sealed package.
  • If possible, retain the original packaging. It may be useful as we investigate this issue.
  • Report the seeds to DATCP using the online form.

Further guidance from the USDA:

  • Save the seeds and the package they came in, including the mailing label.
  • Do not open the seed packets.
  • If the packets are already opened, place all materials (seeds and packaging) into a zip lock bag and seal it.
  • If the seeds have been planted, leave the seeds/plants in the ground until you receive further instruction from your state department of agriculture or APHIS.


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