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When something seems to be too good to be true, chances are that it is. So, if boxes of free stuff start showing up on your doorstep out of nowhere, be advised that you may be a victim of “brushing.”

What is “brushing?” Brushing is the act of sending a consumer unsolicited goods for the purpose of building a reputation online by using the consumer’s information to create bogus reviews raving about their products, as well as to create the impression of greater overall sales numbers. According to law enforcement authorities and the Better Business Bureau, the scammers are usually foreign third-party vendors that send products in packaging made to resemble that of Amazon, or other well-known vendors. The packages, which have no return address, contain products not ordered by the recipient.

For example, unsolicited packets of seeds began showing up in mailboxes across the country recently. The seeds appear to come from China, and, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they should not be planted. The fear is that they could be invasive plant species which could damage crops that grow here. However, to date, the packets that have been tested have proved to be harmless and have contained mustard, cabbage, morning glory, mint, sage, rosemary, lavender, hibiscus, and roses. Even though this seems innocuous, it is an example of brushing.

The individuals behind these schemes generally find a victim’s name and address from information mined online. For the perpetrator, the cost of the goods and delivery is worth the payoff of higher approval rankings because the higher ratings usually lead to increased sales over time. For the recipient of the “free” products, this should serve as a warning that your personal information (name, address, phone number) has been breached and is now available on the Internet where it can be used for deceptive enterprises.

If you have been a victim of brushing, the Federal Trade Commission says you have a legal right to keep unordered merchandise. However, you should also take steps to protect yourself and your identity online. Check our Consumers’ Checklist for Handling Identity Theft. And finally, notify the retailer because brushing and fake reviews are likely against their policies. At a minimum, you can request that a product review attributed to you, but written by someone else, be removed from the retailer’s website.

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