Over one million households in the UK could have been victims of the scam known as ‘brushing’, receiving mystery Amazon parcels from sellers trying to game their way to the top of the Amazon Marketplace rankings, Which? research suggests.
The consumer watchdog 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.
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? 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 Which? 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.
Says Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy:
“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.