ANGOLA — Lou Ann Homan was delighted when she received rose seeds for Mother’s Day.
But, she couldn’t figure out who sent them.
For three months in a row, seeds arrived in the mail in innocuous white envelopes. Homan kept the seeds but threw away the envelopes, which were addressed to her and marked with some writing that appeared to be Chinese.
“USDA is aware that people across the country have received suspicious, unsolicited packages of seed that appear to be coming from China,” said a July 31 report by the United States Department of Agriculture. “USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, other federal agencies and state departments of agriculture to investigate the situation.”
CBS News confirmed residents in all 50 states have now reported receiving unsolicited packages of seeds. At least 300 people in Indiana have reported receiving seeds, says a July 31 article in the Indianapolis Star, written by Sarah Bowman. The article suggests the “mystery seeds from China ... might be part of an Amazon review scam.”
July 29, Rep. Jim Banks suggested they may be linked to the Chinese Community Party.
“On Monday, the Office of Indiana State Chemist announced that at least two Hoosiers have received packages of seeds from China. The packages are mislabeled as containing ‘stud earrings’ and the shipping labels suggest they were sent from Shenzhen,” says Banks’ letter.
The Indianapolis Star article says some of the seeds have come in packages marked as “stud earrings” or “bracelet.”
Heidi Porter of Coldwater, Michigan, has received six unsolicited packages — four of them containing seeds, one of them empty and the other containing a necklace.
“I didn’t order anything,” said Porter. “I thought it was strange when I got the first one and they just kept coming.”
The USDA says the deliveries are likely the result of “brushing,” a technique used by online salespeople to boost the amount of products shipped or fraudulently gain high customer ratings.
The first package received by Homan has a sticker on it that says “Rose seeds (Gift). Have any questions please to contact us (sic). Please give us 5 stars. Thank you very much.”
Homan said she could find no contact information for which to rate the seeds. In some reported incidents of brushing, items were purchased by a third party and sent to random consumers as “gifts.” The purchaser then provided high ratings for the purchased products, creating a positive online presence for the seller.
The other two seed packets received by Homan are just clear plastic baggies. One contains tiny red seeds and the other, larger seeds Homan said resemble hollyhocks.
Those who believe they are a victim of a brushing scam are encouraged to change their passwords for the e-commerce sites they use and also to monitor their credit cards for any unusual activity or unauthorized transactions.
Brushing and fake reviews are against Amazon’s policies, according to the Better Business Bureau; if suspects are reported, the company will investigate and take action. Brushing is illegal in China.
The USDA is asking that seeds be collected at a state level.
“Do not plant seeds from unknown origins,” says Friday’s USDA report. “USDA is currently collecting seed packages from recipients and will test their contents and determine if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment.”
In Indiana, seeds can be dropped off at Purdue Cooperative Extension Offices or sent to: USDA APHIS PPQ, State Plant Health Director Nick Johnson, 3059 N. Morton St., Franklin IN 46131.
Those unable to mail or drop off unsolicited seeds are asked not to open them and seal the seed packets and the mailing labels into a plastic bag, then call Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Entomology and Plant Pathology at 866-663-9684 or email to DEPP@dnr.IN.gov.
July 28, Steuben County Extension Educator Crystal Van Pelt said Homan’s was the first local report she’d heard.
All four northeastern Indiana counties have an Extension office, though hours and protocol may vary due to COVID-19 procedures.
“It might be tempting to put this into some soil to see what happens, but there’s a lot of damage that can cause,” said Don Robison, seed administrator for the Office of Indiana State Chemist. “We don’t know what these seeds are, and there is potential for doing serious harm to everything from your backyard garden to the commodity and specialty crops that are such an important part of the agricultural economy. The last thing we want is to spread a weed, invasive species or disease, and that’s a real risk if people plant these or throw them in the garbage.”
Robinson confirmed the seeds are from China after seeing some of the packets shipped to Utah and Minnesota.
Porter said she has no idea why she would be targeted for six of the mysterious deliveries.
A Fort Wayne resident has also reported receiving seeds and several people posted photos of packets marked with Asian-looking symbols on a Facebook page for Coldwater, Michigan, area residents. In the photos, the seeds appear to be everything from lemon seeds to chia seeds.
Early this year, Homan ordered 1,000 sunflower seeds from Amazon to give away during Earth Fest at the Community Coalition for a Change booth. Earth Fest, hosted by Trine University’s SPEAK for the Earth, was canceled so, Homan said, “I just threw them in my garden.”
Until this week, Homan considered the unexpected seeds an anonymous gift.
“I looked for a card. I called Rachel and I called Tara and I said, ‘thank you for the seeds,’” Homan said. “They both said they didn’t send any seeds.” Rachel and Tara are her daughters-in-law.
Homan has not opened any of the packets but had intended to plant them. Now, she said she will not.