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I recently came across an article with the headline "Some mystery seeds illegally sent from China identified." It struck me as odd because obviously sending unsolicited junk mail isn't illegal, and I didn't think there was anything illegal about sending seeds internationally.

Is there anything illegal about this?

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    Comments have two officially-sanctioned purposes: to clarify, and to ask for clarification. Any other use subjects them to removal. However, the actual practice of comment moderation varies widely between different sites and different moderators. Rule of thumb: if you don't want your thoughts to disappear without warning and without explanation, don't put them in a comment. Aug 5 '20 at 18:00
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    @CristobolPolychronopolis - why do you keep posting off topic comments here? I realize you may have emotions about these mailings, or want to raise public awareness more than the mass media has already done, but this is a question about the law as it pertains to unsolicited international mail containing seeds. Please keep your content related to that topic.
    – billynoah
    Aug 5 '20 at 21:19
  • One possible motivation for laws restricting seed imports is avoiding invasive species either as the labeled merchandise or as contaminants. For an extreme example, see youtube.com/watch?v=hsWr_JWTZss Aug 6 '20 at 19:45
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    @EmilioMBumachar It isn't just a possible motivation, it's the primary one. There's an entire department in USDA that exists exactly for that purpose. This is why you have to answer questions about agricultural goods you may be carrying whenever you enter the country.
    – reirab
    Aug 7 '20 at 4:26
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Reports I've seen are that these seed shipments have false customs declarations, claiming that they contain something else, e.g. this one which was declared as "ring". That would violate 18 USC 542:

Whoever enters or introduces, or attempts to enter or introduce, into the commerce of the United States any imported merchandise by means of any fraudulent or false invoice, declaration, affidavit, letter, paper, or by means of any false statement, written or verbal, or by means of any false or fraudulent practice or appliance, or makes any false statement in any declaration without reasonable cause to believe the truth of such statement, or procures the making of any such false statement as to any matter material thereto without reasonable cause to believe the truth of such statement, whether or not the United States shall or may be deprived of any lawful duties; or

Whoever is guilty of any willful act or omission whereby the United States shall or may be deprived of any lawful duties accruing upon merchandise embraced or referred to in such invoice, declaration, affidavit, letter, paper, or statement, or affected by such act or omission—

Shall be fined for each offense under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

Indeed, if they had been properly labeled "seeds", the packages would probably have been intercepted by US Customs and never have been delivered in the first place. International shipment of seeds and other agricultural products tends to be tightly regulated due to the risk of spreading plant diseases.

There is also the Federal Seeds Act, 7 USC 1581:

The importation into the United States is prohibited of— (1) any agricultural or vegetable seeds if any such seed contains noxious-weed seeds or the labeling of which is false or misleading in any respect;

Under 7 USC 1596 violation is punishable by a fine of up to $1000 for the first offense, and up to $2000 for each subsequent offense.

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We have an intersection of two very different effects.

Agricultural import laws

This is an area of law that normally, consumers have no reason to deal with. However the laws apply to absolutely everyone connected with import of biological items like this.

Of course a recipient of unsolicited seeds has no reason to have learned any of this.

What scientists and lawmakers are worried about is very serious. But of course it's all technical and scientific arcana: there's no reason for a consumer to need to know if they're doing normal consumer things. If you are curious, have an open mind and are willing to ask earnestly, you will find there are very good policy reasons for it, and failure to follow the laws will potentially do a staggering amount of property damage.

Your best bet is to contact your state's department of agriculture or the USDA, and ask them what to do with the seeds. Absent any other advice, I would biologically destroy them by tossing them into any red medical "sharps container" or other bio-waste container at a drugstore, testing lab, free clinic, doctor's office or hospital that you happen to be visiting. Those are incinerated to bio-waste standards.

Brushing - fake review scamming

The usual reason for unordered goods from China is called "brushing" - it is the writing of fake reviews on sale sites - getting a collection of positive reviews is worth a lot of money to the scammer. In particular Amazon is targeted, because the vast majority of products on Amazon are actually from third party sellers, sold through their eBay-like "Amazon Marketplace", which is intermixed with actual Amazon items. Amazon very actively uses algorithms to hunt down and exterminate these fake reviews, so scam sellers go to equally sophisticated extremes to evade that algorithm detection.

Typically a scam seller creates an Amazon product listing for a product intended to be sold. Then, the scammer uses a bunch of sock-puppet Amazon accounts, to make actual purchases of those products with real money (85% of which they get back, since they are the seller). To guard against this, Amazon wants to see proof of actual shipment. So either they stock the item into Amazon's warehouse, or they direct-ship with a trackable method such as USPS's ePacket service, and pass the tracking info to Amazon.

For that, they need a random variety of real US addresses. Nothing easier; in the U.S. real estate ownership data is public record. They haven't hacked you or obtained your PII; they are simply picking random residential street addresses and using those public records to get the homeowner's name. Amazon has access to that same database, so they could detect wholesale use of fake names.

So, random people randomly get packages from overseas or Amazon fulfillment. A fake review is written in your name, but other than that, they don't have your email address or any other PII. It's not a threat to your security.

Now if your name is not in public real estate records, then you might have a problem - but it could be a simple as the hack several years ago of one of the credit reporting agencies.

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  • Since when does USPS / Amazon verify the names packages are delivered to? It's pretty common to deliverer packages to multiple at the same address. Aug 7 '20 at 0:04
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    @thelone sometimes the USPS can. But you are correct, I made that point poorly. Edited. I never claimed Amazon verified shipping addresses for purchases, but I would expect the fake review team would use that data to look for fake names and use that as a signal. Aug 7 '20 at 2:52

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