The first time Joseph Hunkele got a strange package in the mail, he didn’t think much about it.

Hunkele typically orders a couple hundred items a year from Amazon. When a vibrating massager arrived that he wasn’t expecting, the retired tug boat captain figured there was some kind of mix-up.

But then a second massager arrived. Followed by a climbing rope and gloves. And the cherry on top — an inflatable green alien costume for Halloween.

“It’s kind of bizarre,” Hunkele, of Phoenix, said. “I’m almost 70 years old. Why would I use any of those things? My wife and I had a good laugh about it.”

But the question nagged at him: What was going on?

Hunkele wondered if his account had been hacked, but he could find no unauthorized purchases. The packages were addressed to him, so they weren’t ordered by a neighbor. And he could find no receipt, invoice, return address or other markings to explain the deliveries.

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Investigating the scam

Hunkele asked Call for Action at The Arizona Republic/azcentral.com for help.

After researching the case, there was good news and bad news.

The good news: Hunkele didn’t lose any money, and he can keep the merchandise.

The bad news: He was most likely the victim of a “brushing” scam, in which a company creates an online account with a random person’s address, ships products to that address and then uses the account to post fake online reviews praising the products. The fraudsters probably found Hunkele’s personal information online.

The scam gained attention this summer when people all over the United States received unsolicited seeds in the mail from China.

At first, government officials worried the packets might contain invasive species or present health risks to recipients. Later, it appeared more likely the phenomenon was a brushing scam.

The Better Business Bureau says perpetrators are usually foreign, third-party sellers who use the scheme to get around Amazon’s review policies, which prohibit product feedback from anyone with a financial interest or “the product manufacturer, posing as an unbiased shopper.”

Different customers, identical reviews

Call For Action found the company that sent Hunkele the climbing rope and gloves. A logo on the bag that held the rope said Trsmima. A similar rope and gloves set with the same brand was listed for sale on Amazon’s website for $18.88.

The seller page showed a company called HuangCanKun from Hunan Province in China.

The company had received 91 reviews since March 30 and a 97% positive rating. Different customers posted identical feedback.

“The product is great and I love it,” said “Michelle schrem,” “Lyle Rivera,” “Roselyn IV,” “Molly Clavio,” and “Tactical milne.”

“To be honest, the quality is surprisingly good, and still unforgettable,” said “Tim garry,” “Celeste Lamarche” and “daniel johnson.”

A high rating isn’t the only way companies benefit from the scam, according to the BBB. The scheme also artificially inflates sales numbers, which can boost a company’s standings in online search results.

“The payoff is highly profitable from their perspective,” the BBB said in a media release.

Don’t trust everything you read

As a seasoned Amazon customer, Hunkele said he knows not to trust everything he reads. Now when he shops online, he researches a product on a variety of websites. And he even downloaded an app that helps spot fake reviews.

“Some of the reviews are laughable,” Hunkele said. “You can tell.”

Amazon should take the problem more seriously, he said. 

Hunkele couldn’t get through on the phone to report the scam to the online retailer. After filing a report on the website, Hunkele received canned responses by email that indicated the company hadn’t looked into his case, he said.

“They’re just blowing it off,” Hunkele said.

What to do if you’re the victim of a “brushing” scam

  • Report the scam to Amazon: https://account-status.amazon.com/report-unauthorized-activity. Sign in with your account. Click on “Unknown orders or charges.” Provide as many details as possible, including the types of products you received and any identifying marks, such as a company name or logo, product name, model number, package tracking number or return to sender address.
  • Change your passwords and keep an eye on your credit reports and credit card statements.
  • Be cautious when participating in sweepstakes or ordering goods advertised as “free,” “trial” or “unusually low-priced.”
  • You can also file complaints with your local Attorney General’s office, U.S. Postal Inspector or the Better Business Bureau.

Consumer reporter Rebekah L. Sanders investigates issues of fraud and abuse involving businesses, health care and government agencies. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @RebekahLSanders. 

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