Business & Tech

sean p. murphy | The fine print

‘I just want it to stop’: Women get sex toys in packages they didn’t order

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press/file

Nicole Slotterbeck wasn’t just annoyed by the “mystery” packages that kept arriving from Amazon. She was frightened.

First was the bra — in her size. Then came sexually suggestive merchandise on Feb. 7.

“I’ve been basically living in fear of a stalker due to the content of the packages,” she said.

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Slotterbeck, a 26-year-old makeup artist from Southern California, was among the more than 30 people who contacted me to complain about receiving multiple packages from Amazon that they had never ordered, after I wrote about an Acton couple this month with the same problem.

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But her situation, as well as those of other women, stood out because of the nature of the products inside — and the fear it sparked.

Unlike the Gallivans, the Acton couple who contacted me after getting about two dozen packages stuffed with cheap plastic stuff, including phone chargers and fans, the items that Slotterbeck got were deeply personal — and unnerving.

She and three other women who contacted me received sex toys. Two others got lingerie.

All the orders were apparently made from recently opened Amazon accounts by buyers trying to hide their identities by using gift cards instead of credit cards.

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And the response from the Internet giant has been muddled and far from sufficient.

I let Amazon know, in excruciating detail, about the contents of the packages — some of which can’t be printed in a family newspaper. I said there were some very frightened women looking for reassurance.

In response, the company released a statement, saying, in part: “We are taking action against bad actors that abuse our systems and services for marketing purposes. Customer safety is a top priority and we encourage any customer that has a question about a package to contact our Customer Service.”

But when I asked specifically for Amazon’s policy on privacy and its protocol for dealing with customers who complain about receiving “gifts” from anonymous senders, the world’s largest online retailer, with $90 billion in annual sales, declined to share that information with me.

Slotterbeck demanded that Amazon cancel the account from which the items were sent. Amazon said it did, she told me in a telephone interview. But the packages kept coming, containing items even more disturbing than the previous ones.

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Alicia Piatt told me she has been on edge for months, since Amazon packages began arriving at her home, also in Southern California. One of them contained the same type of vibrator as the one Slotterbeck received. Piatt also received lubricant and other intimate items. (Slotterbeck and Piatt do not know each other).

‘Believe me when I tell you that I have been scared to death for months.’

— Alicia Piatt, who says Amazon delivered unwanted packages to her home 

“Believe me when I tell you that I have been scared to death for months,” she wrote to me. “Worrying that my kids were in danger because of this whole thing.”

Piatt said she’s gone to the police, the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Secret Service, but to no avail. The police asked if she had “a secret admirer.” It has put a tremendous strain on her family.

“But I have nothing to hide,” she said. “I just want it to stop. I’m a freakin’ wreck.”

When Slotterbeck first complained to Amazon, a company representative insisted someone was “pranking” her. But she couldn’t think of anyone who would do such a thing, including ex-boyfriends. She asked around among her friends but turned up nothing.

“There was no one I was not on good terms with,” she said.

The packages, addressed to Slotterbeck at her parents’ house, contained nothing to allow her to identify the sender. But Slotterbeck took pictures of the shipping labels and sent them to Amazon, allowing the company to identify the sender’s account.

The name on the account and the e-mail address associated with it were made up of a random sequence of letters and numbers — something like “s8ke9s31x,” Amazon told Slotterbeck. The only mailing address on the account was Slotterbeck’s.

Amazon agreed to shut down the account. But the packages kept coming, and when Amazon looked up the account based on later shipping labels, it found a new name and e-mail address for the sender, a fresh scramble of letters and numbers, Slotterbeck said.

Slotterbeck also learned in her many telephone calls to Amazon that the firm knew the IP address of the computer used by the sender, but that Amazon couldn’t or wouldn’t release it due to privacy concerns. But Amazon did tell her something she found extremely alarming: she and the sender are in the same ZIP code.

“Amazon told me to contact the police,” Slotterbeck said. “I gathered a bag of things the ‘mystery sender’ had sent and took it to the police, which is where they basically laughed and said, ‘So what is illegal about this?’ ”

Slotterbeck told the police she felt harassed. “They shooed me away,” she said.

Slotterbeck’s mother then called police and got them to file Slotterbeck’s statement.

The column on the Gallivans focused on the likelihood that the mystery packages were sent by someone trying to scam Amazon by writing bogus product reviews on its website.

In this scenario, described to me by two business consultants who previously worked for Amazon, 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.

Finally, 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.

Amazon acknowledges “abuse” of customer review system but says it has found “very few reviews” on the products shipped to customers who didn’t order them, like the Gallivans.

But the situation with these women who contacted me is something more serious. They are scared, not merely irritated.

One business consultant who advises clients on how to work with Amazon told me even an IP address might not help track down the person sending items to Slotterbeck, because the sender may have used a public computer at an Internet cafe or public library.

Amazon obviously wants to continue to take orders from people who want to send something anonymously.

“But how does Amazon reply when someone says, ‘Hey, Amazon, you delivered this to me and now you need to tell me who sent it, because I’m scared?’ ” he asked.

Good question.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.