CHARLESTON — Agriculture officials in West Virginia and at least 30 other states are scratching their heads over free, unsolicited packets of seeds from China turning up in the mailboxes of thousands of residents during the past week.
Anyone receiving the seeds — which usually arrive in a sealed plastic packet inside a white envelope marked “China Post” — is urged not to plant them.
“Unsolicited seeds could be invasive and introduce diseases to local plants or be harmful to livestock,” West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt said.
Those receiving the seeds also should refrain from opening the sealed packets in which they arrive.
“Keep the seeds and packaging and contact the WVDA” at 304-558-2226, Leonhardt said.
Leonhardt said his agency is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture “to determine the proper recourse for such seeds.”
Photos of envelopes in which seeds were mailed were posted on several state agriculture departments’ websites and social media pages Tuesday. Most appeared to have been sent from the city of Suzhou, in Jiangsu Province, about 60 miles northeast of Shanghai.
Mailing labels often indicated the contents of the envelope weighed .015 kilogram and was valued at $5. Some labels stated jewelry was inside. The mailers contained no sales pitch or information about the seeds — just small packets holding less than a handful of seeds.
On the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Twitter feed, several residents of the Buckeye State reported receiving similar mailings from an address in Uzbekistan in recent days.
While the purpose of the mailings and the reason why only certain addressees were targeted have yet to be determined, the Better Business Bureau and several law enforcement agencies have theorized the mailings are part of an internet “brushing” scam.
The scam involves companies fabricating sales by shipping minute quantities of product to a multitude of customers, followed by a wave of robotically generated favorable reviews, in order to maintain a quota-driven presence on high-volume marketing platforms.
The unsolicited, foreign-sourced seeds might well be harmless, but they also could contain pathogens, insects or insect eggs that could harm domestic plants or animals. Before seeds are licensed for import, they are typically grown to maturity by personnel in the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to check for the possible presence of disease.
On Friday, Washington apparently became the first state to receive the mailings when two of the Chinese seed envelopes were reported to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Since then, the mailings have been reported by agriculture officials in at least 30 other states, all of whom are urging residents not to plant the seeds, which come in a variety of colors and sizes, or to open the seed packets.