Our mission to help you navigate the new normal is fueled by subscribers. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.
Thousands of Americans are receiving strange packages in the mail. While many of the package labels suggest they contain jewelry or toys, the contents are packages of seeds with Chinese characters.
The phenomenon is widespread as concerned citizens from across the country—everywhere from Louisiana to Ohio to Washington State—are reporting the deliveries to authorities.
In response, state agricultural agencies are issuing warnings, and posting pictures of suspicious packages on social media. The state of Tennessee has told anyone who received the seeds “do not plant them.”
The Department of Agriculture in Washington issued a similar warning:
The federal government has yet to comment on who is behind the mailing campaign. But a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Fortune by email the agency is aware of the situation.
“APHIS is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection and State departments of agriculture to prevent the unlawful entry of prohibited seeds and protect U.S. agriculture from invasive pests and noxious weeds,” said the spokesperson.
The agency also advised anyone who receives the seeds to hold onto the seeds and the mailing label, and contact agricultural authorities in their state.
As for the origins of the seeds, which are reportedly arriving from both China and Uzbekistan, one theory is that they are part of an underhanded marketing campaign by online sellers.
According to a Facebook post from the police department in Whitehouse, Ohio, “it does appear these seeds are tied with an online scam called ‘brushing’,”—a term that describes scammers sending unsolicited products, and then posting positive reviews on behalf of the people that unwittingly received them.
While the nature of the seeds remains unclear, authorities in Washington state have expressed concerns they could be toxic to livestock or represent an invasive species that could crowd out native plants.
Meanwhile, some pundits are viewing the mailing campaign as an act of aggression by China.
Other unconfirmed reports on Twitter suggest the addresses of seed recipients are not random, but were obtained by hacking databases containing lists of gardening enthusiasts.
More must-read finance coverage from Fortune:
- How the U.S. economy is doing in 8 charts
- Why is there a coin shortage in the U.S.?
- Subprime lending giant CardWorks offers a glimpse into consumers’ wallets—and some surprising clues about the economy
- 4 ways businesses can adapt to a changing supply-chain environment
- Howard Hughes CEO Paul Layne on why suburban real estate will thrive in a post-COVID world
- How one toy store owner used his PPP loan to pivot online—and saw sales soar