More than one million households in the UK could have been victims of the scam known as ‘brushing’, having received mystery Amazon parcels, as sellers use dubious tactics in a bid to game their way to the top of the Amazon Marketplace rankings, Which? research has suggested.
The consumer champion is concerned that third-party sellers are exploiting Amazon’s highly competitive search ranking system for products – which favours items with high sales volumes and good reviews – and putting consumers at risk of being misled when they buy products on the platform.
Which?’s nationally representative survey of almost 2,000 people found that four per cent of respondents said they or someone in their household received a mystery Amazon package at their home address that they did not order, was not sent by a known person and was not taken in for a neighbour.
People reported receiving items such as magnetic eyelashes, eyelash serum, toys for pets and children, bluetooth accessories, an iPhone case, a frisbee, medical gloves and more. These items are cheap to ship in large volumes, which is a typical hallmark of the scam.
Scaled up this would mean 1.1 million UK households could have been targets of brushing. This involves an unscrupulous seller, or an agent acting on behalf of the seller, sending items to unsuspecting people and then falsely logging it as a genuine sale in order to artificially inflate sales volumes.
Some sellers take the brushing scam a step further by creating a fake Amazon account linked to the unsuspecting recipient’s address to ‘purchase’ the item themselves and then leave a glowing fake review.
Which? has heard from victims who have been inundated with items, from cheap electronics to beauty products, that they knew nothing about turning up at their door – raising question marks over how their personal details were found as well as the environmental impact caused by these unwanted items.
Teresa Martin, a 67-year-old retired teacher from Swindon, told Which? she began receiving mystery Amazon parcels in October 2020. She assumed they had been wrongly sent to her address – not least because she does not shop on Amazon and they were addressed to two people named Moses and Zachary. Martin searched for their names online, and in neighbourhood groups, with the hope of sending the parcels on to their intended recipients, but neither seemed to exist.
She contacted Amazon about the parcels when they first arrived but still they kept turning up, sometimes more than one a day. Moreover, Amazon did not appear “bothered at all” she said, and told her to keep the parcels or dispose of them as she pleased. She began to grow concerned about why her address had been targeted and whether she was the victim of an elaborate scam.
Items she received included a Bluetooth wireless karaoke microphone for children, a webcam, face masks and a glass teapot. She got in touch with the local police and then in touch with Action Fraud, though neither investigated the issue. Still the parcels – 50 of them in total – kept coming and only stopped arriving in May 2021. She said: “They were all odd cheap things, nothing particularly useful” and “we just took them to a charity shop as soon as we were able to.”
Of the respondents in Which?’s survey who received a mystery Amazon parcel that they did not order, six in 10 (63%) said they kept them, while one in five (18%) threw them away and one in six (16%) gave them away.
Amazon told Which? that brushing is “orchestrated by bad actors” and that it “has robust processes in place to prevent abuse from impacting our reviews, search rankings and other customer experiences.”
Amazon has said sellers find the addresses, and in some cases names, from a wide range of publicly available sources – for example, where a company sells on customer data. But there are other ways Amazon sellers can access addresses – including potentially from Amazon itself via its seller platform for merchants, and from a seller’s list of customers that it serves on other marketplaces and platforms. Which? checked, and by viewing invoices, Amazon sellers do appear to have access to customer addresses. It is not clear, however, how many brushing scams originate from this data.
Which? spoke to marketplace experts based in Shenzhen, China, where many Amazon third-party sellers are based. Both experts Which? spoke to felt Amazon should do more to level the playing field for legitimate sellers.
Eric, a marketplace logistics expert based in Shenzhen, told Which? that brushing is widespread and “systematic.” He said: “Brushing has been going on for at least a decade. The only reason it has now gone wild is because ecommerce has been accelerating very rapidly, especially because of the pandemic.”
David Li, director of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, a cross border ecommerce expert, described ‘brushing’ as being seen as simply “a cost of doing business” for some sellers. He said: “In the Amazon universe, brushing is just a cost of doing business very similar to buying ads or getting an ‘Amazon certified’ logo. Generally, it’s a marketing expense.”
Which? believes that Amazon needs to investigate all instances of suspected brushing scams and ensure that it holds any sellers that are gaming its marketplace system to account. Not doing so leaves consumers less able to trust the products and brands that they find on Amazon and penalises legitimate sellers that are trying to make their way up the rankings through genuine customer sales and reviews.
Amazon says it has “robust” processes in place to prevent brushing, but the consumer champion wants Amazon to do more to increase its scrutiny of seller profiles and monitor for suspicious activity that could suggest product purchases and reviews are not genuine.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“Consumers should be able to trust that the popularity and reviews of products they are buying online are genuine, so it is troubling that third-party sellers appear to be using brushing scams to game Amazon Marketplace.
“Amazon needs to do more to thoroughly investigate instances of brushing scams and take strong action against sellers that are attempting to mislead consumers.
“Which?’s #JustNotBuyingIt campaign is also demanding that strong new laws are introduced by the government to force tech giants to protect people online.”
What to do if you have been involved in an Amazon brushing scam
Report the incident to Amazon’s customer service team.
The advice on Amazon’s website is to donate or dispose of the item that you received.
If you decide to keep or donate the item it is worth being wary because Which? has previously found safety and security issues with some cheap electronics purchased on Amazon Marketplace.
Notes to editors
Consumers can sign up to Which?’s #JustNotBuyingIt campaign at: https://campaigns.which.co.uk/
Which? surveyed 1,839 adults in the UK between 13th and 17th August 2021. Fieldwork was carried out online by Opinium and data has been weighted to be representative of the UK population (aged 18+).
Additional case study
Brushing doesn’t always involve a false name. Sometimes the parcels are directly addressed to the homeowner – which can leave the target feeling concerned about whether their personal data has been compromised in some way.
John, a 69-year-old retired IT consultant from Somerset, received 20 unsolicited parcels addressed in his name over a six month period, even though he didn’t order any of them.
He got in touch with Amazon three times on the phone, as well as on email and was told to keep, donate, or dispose of them as he pleased.
“We had two wifi routers and 10-12 phone covers, most for phones we’ve never had. We’ve had false eyelashes, a feather duster [and] a universal car charger,” he said.
“We were concerned because we were receiving items that I could see I hadn’t ordered and there was no charge. I just got the feeling at some stage Amazon would [charge me].
“They said as we’re not charging you and because it’s not a return we can’t do anything about it – so basically just keep it.”
Further background from ecommerce experts
Eric, a marketplace logistics expert based in Shenzhen, China, told Which? that brushing is widespread and “systematic.”
“The reason for sending out the packages is to feed the Amazon algorithm, the more you sell, the higher your ranking is,” he told Which?.
“If you want to pay [for brushing], it’s easy,” he said. Asked to comment on the survey findings, he said he was “not surprised” that Which?’s research indicated brushing could be widespread in the UK.
He believes that Amazon should do more to crack down on brushing to make the platform a level playing field for legitimate sellers.
“Brushing has been going on for at least a decade. The only reason it has now gone wild is because ecommerce has been accelerating very rapidly, especially because of the pandemic.”
David Li, director of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, a cross border ecommerce expert, described ‘brushing’ as seen as simply “a cost of doing business” for some sellers. He said brushing was widely used as a tactic and that a “cottage” industry of “professional service providers who run a network of people with cards” had sprung up to facilitate it.
“In the Amazon universe, brushing is just a cost of doing business very similar to buying ads or getting an ‘Amazon certified’ logo. Generally, it’s a marketing expense,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised by the figure. The competition is intensive in cross border ecommerce,” he said of the survey findings.
An Amazon spokesperson said:
“Orchestrated by bad actors who procure names and addresses from various external sources, “brushing” is a scheme affecting all online marketplaces. We estimate that less than 0.001% of Amazon orders are impacted by brushing as Amazon has robust processes in place to prevent abuse from impacting our reviews, search rankings and other customer experiences. We will never stop improving the sophistication of abuse prevention in our store, and we will continue to take the appropriate enforcement actions, including support for law enforcement organisations in their efforts to hold bad actors accountable. We strongly encourage those who have received unsolicited packages to report them to our customer services team so that we can investigate fully and take the appropriate actions.”
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