GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s a scam that may seem harmless at first, even fun.
Who doesn’t want Amazon to deliver free products to their doorstep?
But consumer watchdogs say it’s a scam called “brushing,” and it ends up costing everyone.
Louann Husted learned about “brushing” firsthand when she and her husband were bombarded with deliveries of seemingly random items they hadn’t ordered.
“We were getting two or three deliveries a day,” said Husted, who received, among other items, 11 RV power surge protectors. “I didn’t know what it was ’til I called. (It’s) so if you get struck by lightning while you’re in an RV, it doesn’t fry all your devices.”
The Husteds don’t own a recreational vehicle.
“I’ve been forcing them on everybody I know that has a camper so far,” said Husted, laughing. “I don’t care if you don’t want one, give it a try anyway. If it doesn’t work, toss it out.”
The packages did not have return addresses.
The Better Business Bureau and federal agencies say such unsolicited packages are sent by third party online sellers, often outside the United States.
The sender’s goal is to artificially inflate online sales numbers and post positive, but often bogus, ratings and reviews.
“It’s providing a false impression out in the marketplace,” said Lisa Frohnapfel of the Better Business Bureau in Western Michigan. “It’s manipulating the system, and it’s making it look like these are long-standing businesses with good reputations and some of them aren’t.”
Husted said Amazon began delivering unsolicited items to her home in northeast Grand Rapids on Jan. 9.
Over several weeks, the Husteds received, among other products, eight rolling plant stands, two toothbrush holders, jewelry trees, diaper pail bags, face creams, paper towels, trash bags and a shock collar training system for a dog.
The Husteds have a cat.
“We got two packages with wig caps and hair extensions,” reported Husted. “I know I’m getting thinner but seriously,” she said with a good-natured laugh.
Husted said she tried to report the problem to Amazon customer service three times, but the company failed to take action to stop it.
“I would tell friends and family, and they’re like, ‘Oh, free stuff, I’d like to get free stuff,'” recalled Husted. “I’m like, ‘No you don’t. Not when somebody’s using your name in connection to a scam, and you don’t know where it’s going to end, how far it’s going to go.’ That’s really disconcerting to me.”
Target 8 contacted Amazon on Louann Husted’s behalf, and the delivery giant said it’s “investigating the issue and will be in communication with the customer.”
“Third-party sellers are prohibited from sending unsolicited packages to customers, and we take action when our policies are violated, including by withholding payments, suspending selling privileges, and reporting bad actors to law enforcement,” wrote an Amazon spokesperson in an email to Target 8.
Amazon urged consumers to first confirm that an unsolicited package was not ordered by the recipient or anyone they know, and then report the package through Amazon’s online form.
Husted was frustrated because she tried to report the deliveries several times by phone but said those answering Amazon’s customer service line were not familiar with the “brushing” scam and did not tell her what steps to take.
The deliveries continued.
At one point, Husted received a letter with an Amazon logo from a man directing her to write a review on the dog shock collar to receive a $30 Amazon gift card.
There was no way Louann Husted was going to do that.
When she searched the man’s name online, she discovered multiple sites identifying the letter as a scam.
When the Husteds got no results from calling Amazon, they posted a sign outside their home that read, “We Refuse delivery of ALL Amazon Packages!!”
They had the sign up for a week but have since taken it down.
She said they received their last package on Feb. 19.
As for the products she received, she’s giving them away.
“Everybody said, ‘You should sell it,’ and I said, ‘I don’t have the time or the energy or the patience for that.’ I’m doing well finding people to give them to. I’ve been finding them all good homes,” said Husted, who works as a cashier at a grocery store.
“For the diaper pail bags, I waited until a couple came through my line at work buying diapers,” recall Husted. “‘By any chance, do you happen to have this particular diaper pail?’ They said, ‘As a matter of fact we do. It was on our registry.’ I said, ‘I have bags for you. Stop in tomorrow, I’ll bring those in.’ And they did.”
The United States Postal Inspection Service urges recipients of packages they did not order to keep an eye on their credit history and credit card bills.
“While it may appear to be a victimless crime – you did after all get some free stuff- the reality is that your personal information may be compromised. Often scammers obtain personal information through nefarious means and with ill-intentions and use it for a number of scams and other illicit activities in the future,” wrote the USPIS in its online prevention tips.
The USPIS went on to note that fake reviews might prompt consumers to purchase worthless stuff.
“In other instances, bad actors are using a person’s address and account information to receive merchandise then steal it from the home before the resident is able to intercept it,” explained the USPIS.
By law, you can keep unsolicited products sent to your home and have no obligation to pay anything.
If there’s a return address on the package, you can send it back.
You can also toss it.
“If unsolicited merchandise arrives from Amazon, eBay or another third-party seller, go to that company’s website and file a fraud report. Ask the company to remove any fake reviews under your name,” urged the USPIS.
Lisa Frohnapfel of the Better Business Bureau encouraged consumers to check the BBB’s website for its reviews of companies.
She also hopes people will share with the BBB, not only complaints about businesses, but great experiences too.
“Just continue to go back to bbb.org. We’re a long-standing provider that has been here for over a hundred or so years,” explained Frohnapfel. “We’re the ones that are the constant. We’re also the ones that are going through and validating the reviews before we even post them. … We’re protecting small businesses from non-reliable competitors that are actually ruining the infrastructure and system for the good hardworking people that are out there. At the end of the day, (these scams) are hurting the reputation and infrastructure where consumers and businesses can come together and have a trusted business environment.”