• Mysterious seeds from China have been shipped to Americans in all 50 states, an investigation has discovered.
  • The recipients got various types of seeds, some of them being harmless, common seeds that one might plant in their garden. Others were harmful to the soil.
  • The mystery now appears to be a vast scam targeting people whose online accounts have been compromised.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly the biggest and scariest situation of the year, but it’s hardly the strangest thing that has happened in 2020. Thousands of Americans have received unsolicited seed packages containing mysterious Chinese seeds over the past few months.

We’ve seen plenty of reports on the matter, as people detailed their experiences with unexpected deliveries. It turns out the mystery is much bigger than anyone thought, and there may be a simple explanation for it. China isn’t conducting some sort of carefully orchestrated agricultural scam against the US with the help of nefarious seeds, as some might believe. But it’s still a scam nonetheless, and one that you should avoid at all costs.

An incredibly detailed report from Motherboard shows that thousands of Americans from all 50 states have received such packages over the summer, with various agencies investigating the matter. USDA warns the public not to plant the seeds or ingest them, and instead to contact the agency or local agricultural authorities.

Aside from the USDA’s Smuggling Interdiction and Trade Compliance group (SITC), the FBI and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) started investigations of their own. Some of the seed recipients planted them, while others went ahead and ate them, the report shows, including a few scary anecdotes.

“I planted them in my hydroponic system in my home, I thought they were the strawberry seeds I ordered from Amazon. They turned Black and green mold, so I threw them away,” one person from Michigan wrote.

“I’ve been battling this for a couple weeks. Now, where I planted them, and I remember where I planted them, everything that’s in the garden where I planted them are having a hard time and are starting to die,” said a woman from New Mexico in a voice mail. She planted the seeds after thinking she was supposed to have received them.

While these stories might be scary and they’d seem to back up conspiracy theories saying that China is conducting some sort of attack, authorities that investigated the matter discovered that some of the seeds do not seem harmful. It’s not just one species either, but plenty of known plants, including “rose, amaranth (not Palmer), 2 mints, False Horse Balm, Self Heal, Lespedeza and Sweet Potato,” according to a lab in Utah. New Mexico identified onion, cucumber, tomato, radish, peppergrass, alfalfa, corn, lettuce, hollyhock, and spearmint seeds.

A different person discovered they got seeds for oregano and consumed the resulting crop.

Other seeds are “noxious weeds” that already exist in the US, but which people are banned from planting, according to analysis from New Mexico.

While authorities had no idea what was going on in the first weeks of shipments, they apparently have an answer now. It’s all part of a complex “brushing” campaign, as Motherboard explains:

Eventually, the official line became that this was a ‘brushing’ campaign, in which items of small value are sent to people whose online accounts have been compromised, or are sent to people as a ‘gift.’ In order to leave a positive review from a ‘verified buyer’ (which is weighted higher because the person nominally bought and used the product), you need to have actually bought or received an item, so by receiving seeds, reviews from that account or name will be weighted higher.

It’s still unclear who is behind the scam, and what the purpose is, and the investigation is ongoing.

If you have received mysterious seeds from China that you have not ordered, you’d better contact local authorities about it. Instead of planting or eating them, you should also consider revisiting your online accounts and see if anything is suspicious, especially when it comes to Amazon accounts and other online stores. Whether you received the seeds or not, you should set new, unique, strong passwords for each online account you own and use a password manager to manage them. That way, when the next wave of mysterious seeds hits, you might be spared.

Chris Smith started writing about gadgets as a hobby, and before he knew it he was sharing his views on tech stuff with readers around the world. Whenever he's not writing about gadgets he miserably fails to stay away from them, although he desperately tries. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.