#838: A Series of Mysterious Packages Unordered trinkets have been arriving at homes around the country. We try to find out why.
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#838: A Series of Mysterious Packages

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#838: A Series of Mysterious Packages

#838: A Series of Mysterious Packages

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NICK FOUNTAIN, HOST:

When did you first get a weird package?

CELINA SALAS: About three years ago.

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

This is Celina Salas, lives in Chicago. And as best she can remember, this package came on a Wednesday, sort of late in the afternoon.

SALAS: I - actually, I was working at a restaurant so I had just woke up. We always go out from the restaurant afterwards late at night, so I was a little hungover.

MALONE: (Laughter) OK.

SALAS: And I just walked over to my mailbox, and there was this little brown package sitting in there perfectly.

FOUNTAIN: The package was addressed to Celina, but she hadn't ordered it. It looked like it had shipped from China because, as best she could tell, most of the label was in Chinese.

SALAS: So I opened the box. And it's just this watch wrapped in some plastic.

MALONE: But, like, the cheapest watch you could imagine - plastic, like, maybe spray-painted gold or something. It wasn't even working.

SALAS: Yeah. So I was like, who's - maybe my mom sent me this as a joke to, like, time to grow up, get a watch.

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter).

MALONE: Oh. That would be good mom trolling.

SALAS: It would (laughter) be. Exactly.

FOUNTAIN: She checked - not from her mom. But then, three months later, another package.

MALONE: And again, to Celina, apparently from China, not something she ordered.

SALAS: And inside is, like, a braided friendship bracelet.

FOUNTAIN: Like you would do in first grade or something like that.

SALAS: Yes. Yep.

MALONE: Celina had no explanation for this. And there was nothing she could do. She was getting weird packages, and they kept coming.

SALAS: Third package comes about - fourth package comes about, like - the fifth package was...

MALONE: One of them had a crappy ring inside.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. She got a headphone case, but no headphones.

MALONE: There was Silly Putty.

SALAS: Oh, there was Silly Putty. I completely forgot about that. When did that come? That came after the piggy bank.

MALONE: Yeah. There was a piggy bank as well.

FOUNTAIN: But all of the weird junk paled in comparison to the fuzzy keychain.

SALAS: It think it was trying to mock, like, mink, but it looked like raccoon. And it just was - it was terrible.

MALONE: Wait. It was, like, fur?

SALAS: Yes. It was terrible. I opened it and, like, let it drop to the floor. And it was...

(LAUGHTER)

SALAS: ...That keychain should have never seen the light of day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: These ghost packages full of, like, seemingly random junk, there are reports of people getting these all over the country, all over the world, even.

FOUNTAIN: There was a woman in London who got not one, but two fake Nike sweatshirts.

MALONE: There was a couple near Boston who got a flashlight and an outdoor TV cover.

FOUNTAIN: And a woman on Long Island who got some compression socks and a cellphone case.

MALONE: Why are people being haunted by ghost packages?

FOUNTAIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Nick Fountain.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. Today on the show, we go ghost-package hunting.

FOUNTAIN: We learn how that crappy, fuzzy keychain is a sign of the end times, or at least the end of trusting five-star reviews.

MALONE: It all leads us to one of the most elaborate Internet schemes we have ever heard of.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOUNTAIN: This whole ghost-package thing may sound a little bit familiar.

MALONE: And that's because a version of this same phenomenon showed up in a kind of surprising way on a really high-stakes public stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello, New York. 10, nine...

FOUNTAIN: This is from 2015. It's an elaborate opening bell ceremony for the New York Stock Exchange celebrating the Alibaba company, which had gone public about a year earlier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Two, one. Let's ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

MALONE: Now, if you've been in a cave for the last four years, Alibaba is a massive company that includes a bunch of e-commerce sites. Some of them are like marketplaces that connect sellers and buyers.

FOUNTAIN: Alibaba was a huge deal when it decided to go public because it was a huge company.

MALONE: How huge, you may ask? Well, here is the best part of any IPO, my favorite part of IPOs - prospectus, Alibaba's prospectus.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. So a prospectus is when you go public, you have to file this big document with the SEC. And it says basically all the good stuff that's going on in your company and all the bad stuff as well. You lay it all out there.

MALONE: Yeah, like, amazing, juicy stuff. And inside here are some eye-popping numbers, of course. We've got millions of sellers using our sites, hundreds of millions of buyers, hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of stuff sold. And that, of course, is the good stuff in this prospectus.

FOUNTAIN: But then there's also this one strange line. It's in the potential risks section of the document. And it says, quote, "sellers may engage in fictitious or phantom transactions with themselves or collaborators in order to artificially inflate their search results rankings."

MALONE: And you could imagine, like, a collective what? Phantom transactions - somebody needs to explain this to me.

FOUNTAIN: Hey, Mark. Are you in the office right now?

MARK NATKIN: I am.

MALONE: Isn't it, like, 10:30 there?

NATKIN: 11 (laughter).

MALONE: That is 11 p.m., still in the office in Beijing. We called Mark Natkin because he's with this company called Marbridge Consulting and has been watching the Alibaba story from the beginning.

FOUNTAIN: And Mark says Alibaba had no choice but to bring up this phantom-package thing when it went public because it could be a big problem for investors.

MALONE: Yeah. Like, sure, Alibaba had $250 billion-worth of sales on its sites. But some of those sales may have been completely fictional transactions. How many? Nobody seemed to know because hidden somewhere in those transactions was a phenomenon, an Internet scheme, really, known as brushing.

NATKIN: Well, you know, brushing is just a form of gaming the system.

MALONE: Like, what game is being played?

NATKIN: So normally I'm a customer, and I order something. And the vendor sends it to me. Then I rate the vendor based on, you know, quality of the product, delivery time and...

FOUNTAIN: Mark is describing here a basic verified review system, which only allows reviews from people who actually bought a product.

MALONE: Verified reviews are obviously useful for consumers. But Mark says e-commerce sites also use these as a way to rank the vendors who are selling stuff.

NATKIN: Meaning that, you know, later, if somebody, some other customer goes and searches children's toys, you know, any company, any children's toys retailer that got a high number of positive reviews would show up higher in the search rankings.

MALONE: How important is this for a vendor?

NATKIN: Crucial, absolutely crucial.

MALONE: Why is that?

NATKIN: Because there's an ocean of vendors on each of these platforms for any given product category. So if your company is showing up on page 20, you might as well not be showing up at all.

MALONE: And so to make sure that they didn't get buried under the ocean of competition, some very clever vendors figured out a way to game the rankings.

FOUNTAIN: This is the technique that people call brushing - engineering fake purchases in hopes of boosting your search ranking.

MALONE: Do you - I mean, have you ever talked to any, like, people that did this, any brushers?

NATKIN: We have not.

FOUNTAIN: Do you think if we tried to talk to brushers, they would talk to us?

NATKIN: (Laughter) I mean, I guess I - if you have a fluent Chinese speaker who is on the ground here, you might get them to talk to you. But I suspect it'd be difficult.

FOUNTAIN: Fair enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING)

SANDY WEI, BYLINE: Hi.

FOUNTAIN: Hi. Sandy?

MALONE: Sandy Wei, fluent Chinese speaker on the ground there.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. Sandy is a colleague of ours who works out of NPR's Beijing bureau.

MALONE: We've heard a term that's used called brushing. Have you ever heard that? I think it's a translation.

WEI: Yes. The Chinese word is shwa-don (ph). It could be translated literally as brushing the record.

MALONE: Oh, like cleaning up the reputation.

FOUNTAIN: Oh.

WEI: Yes.

MALONE: Sandy says the site she's familiar with where brushing allegedly happens is called Taobao. It's people in China selling all kinds of stuff to other people in China.

WEI: Clothes, food, medicines, flowers, everything. You can even rent a boyfriend...

(LAUGHTER)

WEI: ...To come home with you to meet your parents on Taobao.

MALONE: Anyways, Sandy says, yeah, boyfriends, flowers, and she's heard that brushing is still a thing on that site.

FOUNTAIN: We're wondering if you could try to find us some people who are brushing.

WEI: Yes, I think her can do that for you.

FOUNTAIN: Awesome. Great.

MALONE: Sandy went off to see if she could find somebody. And we knew it was a long shot. So in the meantime, we decided to take a look into a couple of other angles that that seemed like...

WEI: Hello?

MALONE: Hey, Sandy?

FOUNTAIN: But within a day, Sandy was back on the phone with us again.

MALONE: We apologize for sending you on a wild goose chase, but...

WEI: It's OK. It's OK.

FOUNTAIN: Did you find any brushers?

WEI: Yes.

MALONE: No kidding.

WEI: Yes.

FOUNTAIN: After the break, a real-life brusher shares her secrets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: A couple of caveats before we meet our brusher. This scheme got a lot of attention because it came up around the Alibaba IPO. But we've talked to a lot of people about this, and the general consensus is that versions of brushing are almost certainly happening in different ways on different e-commerce sites. So if there's a way to game a review system, you can almost guarantee that someone is trying to do it.

FOUNTAIN: But because Alibaba is often associated with this, we did reach out to them for the story. And they gave us a statement that said, in part, they have, quote, "no tolerance for brushing," and that they've made huge strides in fighting it.

MALONE: However, it seems that it is still happening somewhere - maybe on their sites, maybe not - because our NPR colleague Sandy found a brusher in less than a day.

MA HA QIAN: Hello? Can you hear me?

FOUNTAIN: Yes.

MALONE: Yes. Is this Qian?

QIAN: Yes.

MALONE: This is Ma Ha Qian. She goes by Qian. She lives near Shanghai and works in tech. But in her free time, she takes jobs as a brusher.

FOUNTAIN: When was the first time that you got one of these jobs?

WEI: OK. (Foreign language spoken).

FOUNTAIN: Our colleague Sandy translated for us.

QIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

WEI: When she was in college. But she can't remember which year exactly.

MALONE: Qian says she gets about a buck for every brush she helps out with. It's not a ton of money, but it's, like, kind of more fun for her. She thinks of it more like a hobby. So she does 10 to 15 of these a month.

FOUNTAIN: And the way that it works, she says, is that first she goes into this chat group.

QIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

WEI: "In the chat group, someone will post the information of the task."

MALONE: Saying, like, we need help making a fake purchase. This is usually posted by a vendor or on behalf of a vendor. And there will be instructions to go and buy a specific item from a specific vendor.

FOUNTAIN: What sort of items have you bought and given reviews for?

QIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

WEI: "Mostly clothing and shoes."

MALONE: Clothing and shoes.

QIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

WEI: "Sometimes cosmetics."

FOUNTAIN: This is a completely fraudulent purchase. But in order for the transaction to help with rankings, it has to look like a real-world transaction.

MALONE: E-commerce sites try to spot this kind of funny business. And the brushers try to hide this funny business by making fake purchases look as normal as humanly possible.

FOUNTAIN: And so Qian and her fellow brushers do all of these things to make themselves look real, like everyday indecisive online shoppers.

QIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

WEI: "I search the keyword and randomly click into several different links and scroll down the page, then go back and then click the right link."

MALONE: Oh, so that it looks like you're searching for the product.

WEI: Yes.

MALONE: Oh, man. And that is to make it look like a legitimate purchase.

WEI: Yes.

MALONE: Sometimes the process is even more complicated, like click around a bit, favorite a couple of things, even talk to a customer service rep and then buy the item. But of course this is not going to look like a verified purchase unless something gets mailed to somebody.

FOUNTAIN: So the final steps of brushing are that Qian actually pays for the product. She'll get reimbursed later. And then the seller is actually going to ship something, but not the thing that Qian pretended to buy.

QIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

WEI: "They will send me scarves, socks (laughter), T-shirts, tissues or something like that."

FOUNTAIN: (Laughing) Tissues.

MALONE: Oh.

In other words, what gets shipped are boxes full of seemingly random stuff, which brings us all the way back to where we started this.

SALAS: The fluffy keychain. The fluffy keychain was after the friendship bracelet.

FOUNTAIN: Again, Celina Salas from Chicago.

SALAS: Then piggy bank. Fifth package was Silly Putty. Sixth would be the rings.

MALONE: And like - and you're sure you didn't sign up for some obscure subscription box service. I don't even know what would connect these items.

SALAS: Yeah, it's just like the assortment of things is just so odd. I can't even think to who, why - who, when, where, why?

MALONE: Yeah.

SALAS: Why me? Why these things? Who are you, and where is it coming from?

MALONE: OK. So by design, these brushing schemes are very difficult to track. But our best guess for what is happening to Celina is that her name and her address are being used in an international version of the brushing scheme.

FOUNTAIN: So I have a question about that. Did you - have you ordered random stuff from China before?

SALAS: Yes. I used to order phone cases a lot while I was in college.

FOUNTAIN: But not to this - to this address?

SALAS: Mm-hmm.

MALONE: OK.

FOUNTAIN: OK. That's a clue.

SALAS: They were always all a dollar. And I thought it was the greatest deal ever. Like, yeah, I had to wait a month for that to get here, but I have a cool phone case. And then it turns out those phone cases break, and so do your phone.

(LAUGHTER)

SALAS: So I found it - like, it's not even worth it and stopped buying those.

MALONE: You could imagine that Celina's address would be especially useful to a brusher. She has bought stuff directly from China before. Her address is clearly still active. She looks like a real person who might make this purchase.

FOUNTAIN: As we looked at this whole ghost package thing, we started to wonder, like, who exactly is the victim here?

MALONE: And there are arguably victims. There are investors who buy into a company where it's not entirely clear how many transactions are real and how many are fake.

FOUNTAIN: There's the sellers on these sites that actually play by the rules and then get beat out by the vendors who are brushing.

MALONE: And then there are the online shoppers, you and me, who think verified reviews - like, come on, at least this is something I can trust, but it turns out - not always.

FOUNTAIN: One person who doesn't exactly feel like a victim here is Celina Salas. The phantom packages were a little creepy at first, but now she actually looks forward to them coming.

MALONE: And sure, she says, the piggy bank broke almost immediately, the watch never worked to begin with, her cat destroyed the furry keychain. But there was a ring - that ring. The real metal ring.

SALAS: Like, a little silver ring. Or it's - it looks silver, but...

MALONE: Right. Right. No, no, no. We're with you.

SALAS: I actually - I'm wearing it right now, actually. I've been wearing it. And it has not turned my finger green yet. So yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF RING DROPPING)

SALAS: I don't know if you can hear that, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: Is there anything mysterious in your world that you would like us to look into? Please let us know. We are planet money@npr.org.

FOUNTAIN: Today's show was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. Our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark. Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

MALONE: Thanks this week to Alexandra Leigh Young. And a very, very special thanks to Sandy Wei, who helped us report this story.

WEI: You're welcome. Remember to give me five-star evaluation.

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone.

FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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