It turns out people have been planting (and eating) the mystery seeds from China [Updated]

Stacked seeds in plastic bags with labels
If you receive seeds in the mail that you didn’t order, don’t open the bag.
Photo: Francesca Yorke (Getty Images)

Update, September 9, 2020: Just when we thought the “mystery seeds” story had died down, Motherboard has provided a comprehensive update on what, exactly, people have been doing with the unsolicited seed packets they’ve received from China. Having filed dozens of FOIA requests with every state’s department of agriculture and with the USDA and its various labs, Motherboard editor Jason Koebler reveals that, despite the many warnings from the government not to plant the seeds (for fear of invasive species and fungi contaminating our native crops), hundreds of people did so anyway—while others straight up ate the seeds.

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Koebler’s reporting turned up a wealth of phone calls and emails to state departments of agriculture by seed recipients, ranging in tone from panic (people who couldn’t remember if they had placed legitimate orders for seeds) to indignation (people who didn’t want to pay postage to mail the seeds to the USDA for inspection). Here’s one call from a seed recipient in New Mexico:

“About a month ago, I did receive seeds from China. I guess China because it looks like Chinese writing. I thought, ‘Oh cool, maybe Burgess seeds or one of the seed companies sent me some seeds.’ And, umm, like a dumbass, I planted them, not knowing there was a problem... And now, I’ve been battling this for a couple weeks. Now... everything that’s in the garden where I planted them are having a hard time and are starting to die … I really don’t know what to do at this point, so could somebody call me back and give me a little bit of direction about this? I know I’m a dumbass.”

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The USDA has been tracking these calls and emails, categorizing them according to how the seeds were handled by each recipient (whether they destroyed them, kept them, planted them, ate them, etc.), and continuing to encourage people to safely dispose of the seeds and plants. There’s a list of officially approved methods for destroying the seeds, which range from baking them, soaking them in bleach, and fully encasing them in duct tape.

“One thing is clear to me, from reading these documents,” writes Koebler. “American people do not seem particularly well-prepared for scams of this nature.” After all, this type of Amazon scam works by targeting compromised accounts, and not only did the scammers find thousands of these, but the owners of those accounts, upon receiving the seeds, couldn’t even determine whether it was an item they had actually ordered, and they didn’t know how to check. While the investigation is ongoing, the only real advice to anyone reading this is to keep good records of your online purchases, and maybe change your password, just to be safe. Oh, and don’t eat mystery seeds.

Update, August 4, 2020: According to CBS News, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has investigated the mysterious packets of seeds mailed to homes across the country by an unknown sender in China. As of July 29, the USDA had identified 14 species, though there might be more. Osama El-Lissy of the UDSA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service confirmed that the identified seeds include “mustard, cabbage, morning glory, and [some] herbs like mint, sage, rosemary, lavender... this is just a subset of the samples we’ve collected so far.”

Though these species are largely harmless, don’t consider this your excuse to skip the garden center and score some free herbs. It’s still not a great idea to put these seeds to use, because nonnative plants risk displacing or destroying native ones. And the risk isn’t just from the plants themselves; Robin Pruisner, an Iowa state seed control official, told Reuters that some recipients described a purple coating on the seeds, which might be insecticide or fungicide that could have a detrimental effect on the environment.

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Original post, July 27, 2020: When so little is going on in our daily lives—assuming that we’re all following the CDC’s stay-at-home recommendations, of course—receiving a package in the mail can be pretty exciting, even if it’s just a new pair of socks. But what if it’s something you didn’t order, from an unknown sender, and contains only a baggie of seeds? Do you contact Amazon customer service or the authorities?

According to several news outlets nationwide, Americans in multiple states—Washington, Utah, Virginia, Kansas, Louisiana, and Arizona have all been cited by various outlets—have been sent packets of unidentified seeds from China. The package contains no explanation of what the seeds are or why they’re being sent, though many of the parcels mislabel the contents as jewelry. In all cases, the recipients hadn’t placed any sort of order with the Chinese vendors.

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According to Snopes, a Facebook post from the Washington State Department of Agriculture began circulating widely after several such packages had been received, warning recipients about the contents:

Here’s what to do if you receive unsolicited seeds from another country:

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.

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(The USDA also has a page explaining the risks of invasive species sent through the mail.)

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So... what’s with the seeds? While many fearmongering sources online have suggested the seeds were sent from China with malicious intent, Snopes highlights a theory put forth by the Better Business Bureau’s Jane Rupp in a recent Newsweek article about the seed mailings: it might be nothing more than a fake listing scam.

This is a popular tactic among shady companies that set up pages on Amazon offering name-brand merchandise at too-good-to-be-true prices—then send the customer some bottom-of-the-barrel knockoff crap or just make off with the money and never send anything at all. To give themselves the air of a legitimate business (one to which you might hand over your credit card), these scammers will spend a few months building up fake positive reviews on their pages, which they do by writing “verified” reviews. A verified Amazon review is one that’s been written by someone who actually ordered the product and can ostensibly attest to its quality. This was a system put in place to stop vendors from easily flooding their own pages with five-star reviews. Unfortunately, they quickly found a way around the verification system: The vendor orders their own product, but under the guise of an Amazon user with a name and mailing address they’ve found online. (Ever Google yourself? Your name and address are probably floating around out there for the taking.) Then when the product has been delivered, the vendor can write a glowing review masquerading as that person. Et voila: a verified review to boost business and eventually scam folks out of their money. (For more on this topic, listen to this episode of Reply All.)

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Hence, when a bunch of Americans receive packages of seeds purporting to be jewelry, it might not be agricultural warfare at all, but a simple way to send a cheap parcel of the proper weight to trigger Amazon’s verification algorithm. All that said, definitely do not plant any seeds you might receive, no matter how delicious the resulting produce might be, because invasive species can damage our food supply. And for those looking to remove their personal information from the internet to avoid scams like this, services like DeleteMe can help.

Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.

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can you imagine how much good could be done if people like this put their efforts towards worthwhile causes instead of ripping people off?