The Gallivans never ordered any of it. Now, boxes and large envelopes clutter their Acton home, about 25 in all.
“Why did you order this?” Kelly remembered asking her husband after opening one of the first packages and discovering a 4-inch plastic fan that plugs into a computer USB port and a combination phone charger and lithium-battery-powered hand warmer.
“I didn’t,” Mike answered.
At first, it was fun to rip open the mystery boxes. They laughed at the absurdity of it, like a couple of kids on Christmas morning tearing into gifts sent by far-flung relatives.
But as it’s dragged on, the deliveries have become more creepy than fun. Mike and Kelly want it to stop. (The most recent package arrived at their Acton home on Friday.)
They’ve contacted Amazon, only to be told that the merchandise was paid for with a gift card. No sender’s name, no address. While they’ve never been charged for anything, they fear they are being used in a scam. Experts, including two who formerly worked for Amazon, suspect they are unwitting accomplices in a ruse to manipulate the all-important buyer reviews posted by Amazon.
Here’s how two experts who used to work for Amazon, James Thomson and Chris McCabe, say it probably works: A seller trying to prop up a product would set up a phony e-mail account that would be used to establish an Amazon account. Then the seller would purchase merchandise with a gift card — no identifying information there — and send it to a random person, in this case the Gallivans. Then, the phantom seller, who controls the “buyer’s” e-mail account, writes glowing reviews of the product, thus boosting the Amazon ranking of the product.
“The key is to get something delivered somewhere,” said Thomson, one of the business consultants who once worked for Amazon. Once a package is shipped and the recipient weighs in with a review, the recipient is deemed a “verified buyer” writing a “verified review,” to use Amazon’s parlance, “and that is hugely important in the world of Amazon,” Thomson said.
Amazon highlights verified reviews. And it gives better display on its pages to those products that have a greater number of verified reviews, Thomson said.
And there are the reviews themselves.
“If the person doing the ordering controls the e-mail of the person receiving the product, he can write a five-star review of his own product,” he said.
The Gallivans have no idea why they were chosen, but they are not happy about it.
“We’re just plain, ordinary people,” said Kelly, 68, who recently retired after decades as an intensive care surgical nurse. Mike, 70, is also a retired nurse. “We don’t want any part of this. But the packages just keep coming.”
When Mike called Amazon, the customer service representative seemed as perplexed as he and Kelly were.
“They asked me for an order number, but I told them I didn’t have any order numbers because I didn’t order anything,” he said.
Mike described everything that might be helpful to Amazon’s internal sleuths: The packages get delivered by someone in a white van (he’s only caught a fleeting glance so far). There are no invoices or receipts in the packages. The shipping labels are emblazoned with two SKU codes (“bar codes”) and two QR codes (those squares of black and white). The return address on the packages is Amazon’s warehouse in Lexington, Ky. (I refuse to call it a “fulfillment center.”)
There was one exception: a package that listed a return address as Xiamen Paji Trading Co., located in the Chinese coastal province of Fujian.
The Amazon representative asked Mike to read her the letters and numbers under one of the bar codes. After putting Mike on hold for a while, the representative came back to say the products Mike had received were paid for with a gift card.
“That’s all we can tell you,” Mike recalled her saying.
Well, OK, thought Mike. If it’s not a big deal to Amazon, it’s probably not a big deal to me.
But as he and Kelly continued to come home from shopping or the gym to find more packages on the porch, Mike decided to call Amazon again, this time insisting something “fishy” was going on.
Amazon assured him it would investigate. That was about two months ago. Mike never heard from Amazon again. The packages continue to pile up.
So they asked me to get involved.
Thomson said it’s really important for Amazon to investigate and resolve such issues.
“Amazon’s No. 1 consideration is what’s best for the customer,” he said. “And customers need to know the reviews they read on Amazon are not fraudulent.”
Brian Kilcourse, who heads a California research firm specializing in the behavior of retailers, said even a single positive review can greatly affect buyers’ choice of products.
“When you’ve got a choice of three or four brands of, say, USB connectors, and they all look the same and they all cost the same, you click on the one with the best reviews,” he said. “You hardly think about it. You just do it.”
I presented all this to Amazon in a detailed, two-page memo, along with Mike and Kelly’s names and address (with their permission), and pictures of the shipping labels on a couple of packages they received.
“Thanks for reaching out,” came the reply, which only encouraged me to ask a ton of additional questions, all by e-mail.
But to no avail.
Amazon first gave me this statement: “We are investigating inquiries from consumers who have received unsolicited packages as this would violate our policies,” it said. “We remove sellers in violation of our policies, withhold payments, and work with law enforcement to take appropriate action.”
Later, it said: “Amazon has multiple checks in place to monitor customer accounts and transactions, and have systems designed to identify and prevent suspicious activities.
“As bad actors get smarter, so do we,” Amazon said. “Amazon is constantly innovating to protect the customer experience.”
How did Mike, to whom the packages are addressed, get drawn into this? On occasion he’s ordered stuff on Amazon and received it directly from a manufacturer, once from China. That manufacturer or some affiliate may have scooped Mike’s name and address.
I asked Amazon if it could identify the Amazon account used to send all that junk to Mike and Kelly by reading the label. Amazon didn’t reply, but Thomson said it can.
If so, why didn’t Amazon shut down that account as soon as Mike first contacted Amazon months ago? That might have stopped the flood of packages. (Maybe Amazon did shut it down, but the scam artist simply created another bogus Amazon account and continued to use Mike’s name and address for delivery.)
In the meantime, the stuff keeps arriving on the Gallivans’ porch: USB cables, wireless chargers, a computer vacuum cleaner, phone cases, a USB-powered humidifier, high-intensity flashlights, a cigarette-lighter key chain, a Bluetooth speaker, a rechargeable dog collar, a facial mask, LED tent lamps, an outdoor TV plastic cover, plastic trash bags for the automobile, and so much more.
Welcome to the global economy, Mike and Kelly.Sean P. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@spmurphyboston.