Lisa Klebba, from a small town in Michigan, checked her mail one day recently and found a surprise: a package from Kyrgyzstan.
“I was like, this is weird. So I looked at it and I’m like, did I order something from China?”
Though from Kyrgyzstan, the package looked like one that she had previously received from China after ordering from AliExpress. She thought it may have been a small dental tool that she ordered months before but hadn’t yet received. So she opened the packaged just to discover that it was completely empty.
“There was nothing in it!” she exclaimed, “I was like, holy cow, this is one of those things!”
So she began searching the internet for clues as to why she may have been sent an empty package from Kyrgyzstan, and came upon an article that I wrote on Forbes in 2017 about Heaven McGeehan, a Pennsylvania woman who receives unordered packages from China almost daily:
“… when she opened it she found a small handful of black hair ties with cheap plastic hearts that had the word “Phoenix” emblazoned upon them. She was bewildered. The package was clearly addressed to her-her name was correct and so was her address-but she wasn’t the one who placed the order and had no idea why someone in China would send it to her. Then the following day it happened again: another unordered package from China arrived containing the same item. Then it happened again the following day, and again, and again, and again without end until the small, unsolicited parcels began piling up in McGeehan’s home.
“I receive at least one a day, sometimes multiple,” she explained.”
tAmericans Are Receiving Unordered Parcels From Chinese E-Criminals — And Can’t Do Anything To Stop Themt
So Lisa sent me a photo of the mysterious package via Twitter with the caption, “It was completely empty.”
This has become a regular occurrence since I published that article nearly two years ago. People all over the United States are still receiving unordered packages from Asia and there seems to be no way that the U.S. Postal Service or U.S. Customs can stop it. McGeehan reports that she is still receiving unordered packages from China, only now whoever is sending them has moved on from hair ties to random keychain charms.
I asked Lisa if she was frightened by the unordered, empty package:
“Well, I guess. I’m very realistic, so I wasn’t scared but I was …” she paused for a moment. “I thought, does someone have my password?”
That wasn’t a very far fetched conclusion to jump to. Basically, Lisa’s identity and privacy had been compromised, but to what extent is anyone’s guess. The best case scenario is that the empty package from Kyrgyzstan was the result of a rather innocuous brushing scam. The graft works something like this:
A seller acquires the actually name and address of a real e-commerce user and creates a fake account for them on the platform they’re selling on. They then make what appears to be an order of their product from the victim’s fake account, ship out a package that is either empty or contains a low-value, light weight item, and then, after the delivery has been confirmed, leaves a 5-star review to boost their rankings and attract more sales. To the platform and other users, these faux reviews appear to be from legitimate and verified sales. Beyond the benefit of favorable reviews, simply having additional sales is often enough to raise a product in the rankings of some e-commerce sites, such as Amazon.
However, some have warned that there may be hidden dangers lurking within brushing schemes. As MarketWatch reported:
“… being a victim of a “brushing” scam could also indicate something more nefarious. “It can be indicative of some kind of breach of confidentiality or data security,” Kilcourse said. “It’s a low-grade scam, with some pretty potentially serious data privacy considerations.””
What e-commerce platforms these fake reviews are appearing on is often as mysterious as the packages themselves. It could be any-or even all-of the major options out there: Amazon, eBay, AliExpress …
How the brushers received the victim’s personal data is usually equally unclear. However, in Lisa’s case there was a clue:
“A lot of people just call me Li,” she began, “So on eBay for some reason I put that as my name instead of L-I-S-A.”
The empty package was addressed to Li Klebba.
Lisa does not recall using this nickname for any of her other e-commerce accounts.
Brushing is technically illegal in China-and one guy was actually sentence to a five year jail term for it-as well as in many other countries, and I would imagine that it could constitute mail fraud, false advertising or even identity theft in the U.S. However, the infringers are often located across international borders, where all attempts at law enforcement are basically moot. As we previously covered:
“For the most part, if the seller of a product is on the other side of an international line than the buyer then no rules, regulations or laws apply; IP, consumer safety, and postal laws become moot, as the country where the offense originates is beyond the legal reach of the parties seeking retribution. Cross-border e-commerce has become the new “Wild West,” a place where anything goes …”
To add insult to injury, due to the imbalanced pricing policies of the United Postal Union, shippers from countries like Kyrgyzstan and China can send mail to the USA at a subsidized rate-generally way cheaper than it costs to send a package domestically-so USPS customers and U.S. taxpayers end up picking up the tab to become victims of international brushing rackets.
tAs U.S. Postage Rates Continue To Rise, The USPS Gives The Chinese A ‘Free Ride’t
I reached out to the U.S. Postal Service to find out what they recommend people to do who receive unordered packages:
“If you receive a gift in the mail that you did not order, you can choose to keep it or throw it away. It is up to you. This is a rare instance where “finders, keepers” applies. Do not get conned into paying for the gift or merchandise if the sender follows up with a phone call or email. Unsolicited merchandise is yours to keep. Postal Inspectors do recommend you report unsolicited merchandise to the Inspection Service and the FTC using their online reporting portals. If possible, keep a photocopy of the label and either input the information or upload it along with your complaint. This could be helpful if a criminal investigation develops in the future.”
Lisa ended up tossing the empty package to her puppies, who gleefully tore it to pieces. At least she was able to use it for something.