Unordered trinkets have been arriving at homes around the country. We try to find out why.
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00:00:13when did you first get a weird package 3 years ago and she can remember this package came on a Wednesday sort of late in the afternoon I actually I was working at a restaurant so I had just woke up she always go out from restaurant afterwards late at night so I was a little hungover and I just walked over to my mailbox and there was this little brown package sitting in there perfectly the package was addressed to Selena but she had an ordered it it looks like it hit shipped from China because it's best she could tell most of the label was in Chinese and it's just this watch wrapped in some plastic but like the cheapest watch you could imagine plastic like maybe spray painted gold or something it wasn't even working so maybe my mom sent me this is a joke to like time to
00:01:13get a watch that would be good mom for a while but then 3 months later another package again to Selena apparently from China not something she ordered inside is like a braided friendship bracelet first grade something like that Selena had no explanation for this and there was nothing she could do she was getting weird packages and they kept coming package was one of them had a crappy ring inside yes she got a headphone case but no headphones there was Silly Putty after the piggy bank piggy bank as well but all of the weird junk paled in comparison to The Fuzzy keychain mink but it look like rack
00:02:13I wanted it just was it was terrible terrible I opened it and that he should have never seen the light of day
00:02:26these ghost packages full of like seemingly random junk their reports of people getting these all over the country all over the world even there was a woman in London who got not one but two fake Nike sweatshirts there was a couple of your Boston who got a flashlight and an outdoor TV cover and a woman on Long Island who got some compression socks and a cell phone case why are people being haunted by ghost packages hello and welcome to Planet Money I'm Nick Fountain and I'm Kenny Malone today on the show we go ghost package hunting we learn how that crappy fuzzy keychain is a sign of the end times or at least the end of trusting V Star reviews It All Leads us to one of the most elaborate internet schemes we have ever heard of
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00:04:03this whole ghost package thing may sound a little bit familiar 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
00:04:18this is from 2015 it's an elaborate opening bell ceremony for the New York Stock Exchange celebrating the Alibaba company which a gun public about a year earlier
00:04:31have you been in a cave for the last 4 years Ali Baba is a massive company that includes a bunch of e-commerce sites some of them are like marketplaces that connects sellers and buyers Alibaba with a huge deal when it decided to go public because it was a huge company how huge you may ask well here is the best part of any IPO my favorite part of ips
00:04:57prospectus alibaba's prospectus yet so a prospectus is when you go public you have to file this big document with a sec and it says basically all the good stuff is going on in your company and all the bad stuff as well you lay it all out there 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 fires hundreds of billions of dollars worth of stuff sold and that of course is the good stuff in this prospectus 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 inflated their search results rankings and you could imagine like a collective what Phantom transactions somebody needs to explain this to me hey Mark are you in the office right now I am at like 10:30
00:05:5711:11 p.m. still in the office in Beijing we called Mark napkin because he's with this company called marbridge Consulting and has been watching the Ali Baba story from the beginning and Marc 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 yeah like sure Alibaba had 250 billion dollars worth of sales on its sites but some of those sales may have been completely fictional transactions how many nobody seems to know because hidden somewhere in those transactions was a phenomenon and internet scheme really known as brushing what game is being played normally I'm a customer and I order something in the vendor send it to me then I rate the vendor based on your quality of the product delivery time
00:06:57Mark is describing here a basic verified review system which only allows reviews from people who actually bought a product verified reviews are obviously useful for consumers but Mark says e-commerce site also use these as a way to rank the vendors who are selling stuff children's toy retailer that got high number of positive reviews would show up higher in the search rankings for a vendor 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 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 this is the technique that people called
00:07:57rushing engineering fake purchases in hopes of boosting your search ranking do you I mean have you ever talk to any like people that did this any brochures we tried to talk to brushes they would talk to us on the ground here you might get them to talk to you but I should make it be difficult
00:08:33hi hi Sandy Sandy Way fluent Chinese speaker on the ground there is a colleague of ours who works out of NPR's Beijing Bureau we we've heard a term that use is called brushing have you ever heard that tickets a translation the Chinese word is shorter than it could be translated literally as brushing the record up the reputation yes this is the site she's familiar with we're brushing allegedly happens is called taobao its people in China selling all kinds of stuff to other people in China close Food medicines flowers everything you can even rent boyfriend hours and she's heard that brushing is still a thing on that site we're wondering if you could try to find us some people who are brushing
00:09:32awesome great 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 seems like a Sandy but within a day said he was back on the phone with us again we apologize for sending you in a while who is Chase but did you find it
00:10:00after the break a real-life brusher shares her secrets
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00:10:57a 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 talked to a lot of people about this and the general consensus is the versions of brushing are almost certainly happening in different ways on different e-commerce site so if there's a way to game a review system you can almost guarantee that someone is trying to do it 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 and part they have quote no tolerance for brushing and that they've made huge strides and fighting it however it seems that it is still happening somewhere maybe on their site to maybe not because our NPR calling Sandy found a brush shirt in less than a day
00:11:43so can you tell me yes this is my Hutchins she lives near Shanghai and works in Tech but in her free time she takes jobs as a pressure when was the first time that you got one of these jobs
00:12:06when she was in college but she can't remember which year exactly for her stinks of it more like a hobby so she does 10 to 15 of these a month and the way that it works she says is that first she goes into this chat group
00:12:27so you can prove someone will post it the information of the tests you need help or on behalf of a vendor and there will be instructions to go and buy a specific item from a specific vendor what sort of items have you bought and given reviews for mostly clothing and shoes but in order for the transaction to help with rankings it has to look like a real world transaction 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 and so Jen and her fellow brushes do all of these things to make themselves look real like everyday indecisive online shoppers
00:13:27that's the key word is randomly clicking to several different links and scroll down page to go back and then click the right link oh so that it looks like you're searching for the product and that is to make it look like a legitimate purchase
00:13:51just so there's a process is even more complicated like click around a bit favorite a couple 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 so the final steps of brushing or that she actually pays for the product should get reimbursed later and then the seller is actually going to ship something but not the thing that she and pretended to buy T-shirts tissues or something like that in other words what gets shipped our boxes full of seemingly random stuff which brings us all the way back to where we started this that's fluffy keychain The Fluffy keychain with after the friendship bracelet from Chicago piggy bank fifth package with silly putty
00:14:516 would be the ring I didn't like and you're sure you didn't sign up for some obscure subscription box service I don't even know what what would connection so bad I can't even think to food why who when where why why me why these things who are you and where is it coming from these are very difficult to track but our best guess for what is happening to Selena is it her name and her address are being used in an international version of the brushing scheme so I have a question about that did you have you ordered random stuff from China before I used to order phone cases a lot while I was in college okay that's a clue 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
00:15:51self so I found it like it's not even worth it and stopped by those you could have to brush her she has bought stuff directly from China before her dress is clearly still active she looks like a real person who might make this purchase as we looked at this whole ghost package thing we started to wonder who exactly is the victim here 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 does the sellers any sites that actually play by the rules and then get beat out by the vendor to her brushing 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 one person who doesn't exactly feel like a victim here is Selena sell us the Phantom package
00:16:51square a little creepy at first but now she looks forward to them coming and sure she says the piggy bank broke almost immediately the watch never work to begin with her cat destroyed the furry keychain but there was a ring that ring the real metal ring and little silver ring or pit saddest it looks over but right now I'm wearing it right now actually I've been wearing it and it has not turn my finger green yet so yeah
00:17:29is there anything mysterious in your world that you would like us to look into please let us know we are Planet Money at npr.org RG Today Show was produced by Alexi Horowitz Ghazi are supervising producer is Alex goldmark or status to show thanks this week to Alexandra Lee Young and a very very special thanks to Sandy Way who helped us report this story to get me a five-star evaluation

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