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Prime suspects 

How would anyone benefit from sending unsolicited, free Amazon packages to random addresses?

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JOHN GARRISON
  • John Garrison

The packages started arriving in early October. First came a cell phone case that no one had ordered and that didn't match a phone in the house. The next week brought unusual kitchen supplies. Then a mass of assorted holiday-themed items. All of these deliveries were from Amazon and addressed to Ben's single-family house in Humboldt Park. (We agreed to let Ben use only his first name to give, at least for the next 1,000 words or so, the illusion of Internet anonymity.)

At first Ben wasn't sure what to make of these unannounced packages with no return addresses. "My first thought was we have a couple relatives who are older who will, on occasion, send us kind of a random gift from Amazon," he said. He figured that maybe a relative or friend had sent a gift without a note or mention of who it came from. He was wrong. It turned out that no one he knew had sent the packages. As the number of mystery items piled up, he decided to contact Amazon. Maybe, he reasoned, his personal information had gotten mixed up in some sort of system error.

Ben's call with Amazon led to what he described as "kind of a unique customer service experience." The customer service associate he spoke with at Amazon was friendly and yet a bit informal. He even used words like "stalker" to describe what might be happening, which Ben found a little strange. "I think he used terms like shady, sketchy, things like that," he said. "[Those] don't seem like typical customer relations pamphlet terms that you would use."

The associate looked up a tracking number from one of the unsolicited packages and identified the Amazon account that ordered the package, along with a few other packages sent to Ben that were associated with the same account. "The only real question he asked me was, 'Do you know someone by this name?' And it was Karen." (We've left out her last name, but a Google search brings up a blonde woman in Florida whose Instagram, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not private and with an abundance of selfies.)

When Ben said that neither he nor his wife knew anyone by that name, the person on the phone said he couldn't tell him any more information about the account, but that Amazon did have instances of fake accounts being used to send packages to publicly available addresses. While the associate told Ben that Amazon couldn't do anything about blocking or stopping the packages, he said he would make a note of the call and that the team at Amazon would investigate to find out more about the possible fraudulent account. The associate added a strange sign-off: Ben would "probably never hear anything about this again." Ben received a follow-up e-mail noting his call to Amazon on October 19. The packages continued.

In the middle of November, the Christmas items started arriving on his doorstep. The house received a handful of holiday items—Christmas tree stands, holiday decorations, and about two or three different Christmas tree skirts. The house was now receiving two or three mystery packages a week. Most of the items weren't useful, except for the happy surprise of a nut milk bag. "Nothing else really was something that we could use practically, but that was a win for her," Ben said about his wife.

By December, the deliveries abruptly stopped.

There are lots of news reports, Reddit threads, and other accounts of people going through the same thing. In 2017, a woman in Pennsylvania received Amazon packages from China at the rate of multiple packages per day. The packages were cheap, small things like hair ties, sent directly to her name and home address. Another woman identified as "Nikki" got an unsolicited sex toy in the mail from Amazon, as well as other assorted items like a Bluetooth cord, according to The Daily Beast. Nikki spoke with Amazon customer service multiple times and found the experience mostly unhelpful; the people on the phone were tight-lipped, gave her conflicting answers, and transferred her to incorrect departments. Nikki feared she had a cyberstalker ("It seems so personal," she said at the time). A quick Google search for "received a package I didn't order with my name amazon" yields many confused people experiencing the exact same thing as Ben.

Why would anyone benefit from sending unsolicited, free Amazon packages to random addresses? A few news reports speculate that when a customer orders something from an unscrupulous source (such as international sellers who are difficult to track or hold under U.S. fraud laws), sellers may be able to lift or sell the buyer's address for other purposes.

Another more likely theory is that sellers could harvest random addresses found on the Internet and send packages to them to game Amazon's rating system with "verified buyers." A verified purchase, according to Amazon, means that "the person writing the review purchased the product at Amazon and didn't receive the product at a deep discount." The seller can then leave a verified five-star review for their own item using a phony e-mail address. This technique is called "brushing" and it's suspected in many of these cases.

In message boards about how Amazon averages product reviews, users argue over third-grade math before agreeing that calculations are futile because verified reviews are weighted more heavily. This passage from Amazon is quoted often: Amazon calculates a product's star ratings using a machine learned model instead of a raw data average. The machine learned model takes into account factors including: the age of a review, helpfulness votes by customers and whether the reviews are from verified purchases.

In the 2019 Reddit thread "I think I'm a victim of an Amazon brushing scam?! What do I do??," user pug_in_a_rug10 asked if they should be nervous because "someone has got my address and name?!" A few months later, however, their story ended: "Honestly there was nothing I could do! I got another package after this post and then They finally stopped! I'm sorry. I wish I could be of more help, but there is hope it will stop soon and not be dangerous of anything haha."

Suspecting he had been "brushed," Ben found one of the exact products he received on Amazon's site and looked through its reviews to see if he could find a review from Karen, the name that Amazon told him was behind the account sending him packages. He found that about half of the reviews for the products were anonymous, with a mere "verified buyer" marker. "So there was really no way to figure out if someone connected to my specific situation had purchased and reviewed a product," Ben told me. But since the Christmas items started arriving in November, he suspects that a seller might have been trying to boost reviews ahead of the holiday season.

After this ordeal, Ben says that he feels that his experience with Amazon's customer service felt more protective of the sender and the company than protective of him as a customer. Even though Amazon is aware that there are fake or fraudulent accounts, they didn't seem to do much to ameliorate his particular situation. "It seemed like they said the things . . . they were legally responsible to say to me, " he said. "[It] didn't really satisfy what I was hoping to get from them."

I reached out to Amazon for comment. After receiving Ben's mailing address and e-mail, Amazon said they would follow up with him on his situation and provided the following statement: "We are investigating this customer's inquiry about unsolicited packages, as this would violate our policies. We remove sellers in violation of these policies, withhold payments, and work with law enforcement to take appropriate action."

Ben still has not heard anything from Amazon. But he also hasn't received another package.  v

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