“Mystery seeds” in the post: brushing scam or international bioterrorism?

Hundreds of Brazilians have received mysterious and unsolicited seed packages, causing concern for agricultural authorities

In the 1956 sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” alien plant spores fall from space and grow into large seed pods, each one capable of reproducing a duplicate copy of every human on Earth. Today — without the alien doppelgangers — frightened Brazil’s agricultural authorities warn that a similar phenomena could be in progress, after hundreds of suspicious, unsolicited packages containing mysterious seeds were sent to Brazilian homes through the post.

At least 258 samples of seeds have been turned in to authorities in all but two Brazilian states, and the Agriculture and Health Ministries have launched a joint investigation to discover whether these seeds are possible invasive plants or weeds which could be harmful to Brazil’s agribusiness, as well as finding out who is sending them — and why.[restricted]

A federally-run lab in the Center-West state of Goiás analyzed some 25 packages — finding three types of fungi, as well as different types of bacteria and live mites.

Scientists warn that four packages included possible plague agents that are still non-existent in Brazil, alerting the public that the seeds should not be planted — or thrown into the garbage.

According to Brazilian authorities, the packages appear to have been sent from four undisclosed Asian countries — though several contained Chinese postmarks — and were first reported in August by residents of the southern state of Santa Catarina. 

The seeds arrived alongside deliveries of goods purchased online, presented as an added free gift. In some cases, the package of seeds was labeled as “jewelry.” In a matter of weeks, similar reports cropped up across the country.

The Chinese Embassy in Brasília said in September that a preliminary inspection by the China Post found evidence of defrauded postal stamps. “The shipment of seeds is forbidden or restricted to member countries of the Universal Postal Union. China Post rigorously follows those rules and forbids the postal transportation of seeds,” said the embassy, in a statement.

Bioterrorism or online scam?

The unsolicited packages have also been sent to people in several other countries, including the U.S., Canada, and Portugal. 

Back in July, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched an investigation into the phenomenon, alongside the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies.

The USDA has yet to find anything ominous about the packages — though experts are only beginning their analysis of samples.

So far, authorities are working with one leading possibility: that the packages are linked to a common e-commerce scam known as “brushing.” This type of fraud involves online vendors setting up accounts in a stranger’s name, then sending their products to an unsuspecting recipient. They then use this account they’ve set up to write fake ‘verified reviews’ in a bid to improve their seller ratings. 

On many marketplaces, such as Amazon, vendors must include tracking codes for shipped goods — therefore, the scam only works if a package is physically sent. In this case, scammers use small throwaway items, such as seeds. 

This explains why authorities have been coy regarding the ploy as attempted bioterrorism.

For the recipients, though, it raises concern about their data — such as full name and address, at the very least — being easily retrievable online by malicious enterprises.

Importing seeds to Brazil

Brazilians are able to buy seeds from foreign vendors — but they must undergo a rigorous and long clearance process, which goes through the Agriculture Ministry.

However, it is quite common for people to buy seeds or small plants, being unaware of the rules and having their shipment seized by the authorities.

According to Correios, Brazil’s federally-run postal service, the number of apprehended packages weighing up to 2 kilos jumped from roughly 2,000 last year to 5,000 in 2020.[/restricted]

By Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.