Days ago, we wrote that the U.S. had finally started to identify some of the mystery seeds being shipped from China, apparently randomly, to U.S. citizens.
While the Department of Agriculture was able to identify "14 types of plants" that the seeds belonged to, including cabbage, hibiscus, lavender, mint, morning glory, mustard, rose, rosemary and sage, the question still remained as to why these seeds were being sent.
On Friday, the Federal Trade Commission weighed in on the phenomenon for the first time and offered their take. First, they reminded people (in all capital letters): "DON'T PLANT THE MYSTERY SEEDS". They also postulated that the seeds could be part of a scheme to prove that items were shipped from China from online orders that were ultimately never fulfilled:
Did you order something and get seeds or other junk instead? If that’s you, dispute the charges for the thing you didn’t get. We hear that some sellers might be sending stuff so they can show payment companies the tracking numbers to prove they delivered something to you. So: tell the payment service you used (PayPal, for example), and your credit or debit card company right away that you got seeds, never got anything, or got something other than what you ordered. If the seller tries to use a tracking number to prove it delivered, point out anything to show that it’s not credible — maybe a weight listed that’s different from the package you got, or a different delivery address.
The FTC also wrote about a scam where, because someone sends you something unordered, it allows them to give themselves a good review under your time.
You might have read about the “brushing” scam. In this one, somebody sends you stuff, unordered, because it lets them give themselves a great review in your name. Annoying, but whatever, right? Nope. More than annoying. It could mean that the scammers have created an account in your name, or taken over your account, on online retail sites. Or even created new accounts (maybe lots of them) in other names tied to your address. Letting them post lots of seemingly-real reviews. So keep an eye on your online shopping accounts. If you spot activity that isn’t yours, report it to the site right away, and think about changing your password for that site.
Finally, the FTC encourages people to contact the government if such packages are received.
Recall, it was about two weeks ago that we highlighted a mysterious trend that was sweeping the U.S.: citizens were receiving unsolicited packages of seeds, with return addresses from China, for apparently no reason at all.
Art Gover, a plant science researcher at Penn State University said the "risk is low" of the plants being involved in biological warfare, but that the seeds "can be troublesome because they can introduce problematic weeds and diseases".
Lisa Delissio, a professor of biology at Salem State University in Massachusetts, said: "If any of the unidentified seeds turned out to be invasive species, they could displace native plants and compete for resources and cause harm to the environment, agriculture or human health."
Bernd Blossey, a professor in the department of natural resources at Cornell University commented: “Obviously planting rosemary or thyme in your garden isn’t something that will endanger our environment. But there may be other things in there that have not been identified yet. Any time you gain something unknown, my suggestion is burning them, not even throwing them in the trash.”
In our prior report, we suggested the mailings could be some sort of agricultural warfare brewing between the U.S. and China - where agriculture remains a key point of trade tensions - and where a cold war of sorts appears to be bubbling up under the surface.
After multiple reports in the U.S. media regarding the seeds, China's Foreign Ministry responded last week by saying that China Post (the country's state owned mail service) "has strictly followed regulations that ban the sending and receiving of seeds," according to Bloomberg.
Further, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin says that the parcels were "forged" and "not from China". China has supposedly requested that the U.S. mail the seeds back to China so they could investigate further.
We noted last week that the response is anything but re-assuring. We're not postmaster generals but we find the idea of being able to forge mailing labels - and get products to their final destination - in this day and age where even the decrepit U.S. postal service is mostly digital, as a difficult one.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture wrote about the phenomenon on their Facebook page on July 24, 2020 and said that the seeds are being shipping in packaging that identifies the contents as jewelry. Similar advisories have been issued in Virginia, Utah, Kansas, Arizona and Louisiana.
Facebook users have been adding photos in the comments section of the post sharing photographs of seeds they have received from China. “It’s not a joke. I got some the other day!!!” one user commented, stating that the package identified the contents as a "Rose flower stud earring".
“Look’s like it’s all across the country,” stated an Indiana resident who also received seeds in the mail unsolicited.
At least 40 residents in Utah were said to have been mailed the unsolicited packages, according to the Daily Mail. The Kansas Department of Agriculture and the Arizona Department of Agriculture also addressed the phenomenon, as did the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, who said:
"Right now, we are uncertain what types of seeds are in the package. Out of caution, we are urging anyone who receives a package that was not ordered by the recipient, to please call the LDAF immediately. We need to identify the seeds to ensure they do not pose a risk to Louisiana’s agricultural industry or the environment."
There had been similar reports from Virginia's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "The seeds have yet to be identified, but officials speculate that the seeds may be of an invasive plant species and are advising residents not to use them," Fox News reported.
"Taking steps to prevent their introduction is the most effective method of reducing both the risk of invasive species infestations and the cost to control and mitigate those infestations," VDACS wrote in a press release.
Twitter is also littered with reports of people receiving these seeds:
We have received 2 of those packages here in Indiana. One from China, and one from Kyrgystan. pic.twitter.com/Fm6CBxf1mD— Don ⭐⭐⭐ (@SmallTownIndy) July 26, 2020
The Washington State Department of Agriculture has advised people on its Facebook page:
1) DO NOT plant them and if they are in sealed packaging (as in the photo below) don’t open the sealed package.
2) This is known as agricultural smuggling. Report it to USDA and maintain the seeds and packaging until USDA instructs you what to do with the packages and seeds. They may be needed as evidence.
Anyone who has received seeds in the mail can report them to the United States Department of Agriculture by visiting their website here. The site says:
If individuals are aware of the potential smuggling of prohibited exotic fruits, vegetables, or meat products into or through the USA, they can help APHIS by contacting the confidential Antismuggling Hotline number at 800-877-3835 or by sending an Email to SITC.Mail@aphis.usda.gov.
USDA will make every attempt to protect the confidentiality of any information sources during an investigation within the extent of the law.