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Why A Scramble To Top Search Results Ends With Random Packages On Doorsteps

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

People across the country are finding packages they haven't ordered inside their mailboxes. Nick Fountain from our Planet Money podcast investigates.

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: When did you first get a weird package?

CELINA SALAS: About three years ago.

FOUNTAIN: This is Celina Salas - Chicago resident, retail worker and strange package recipient. The first thing she noticed about the package was that the shipping label was written in Chinese. Like, the box had come all the way from China, which wasn't that weird. She had ordered stuff from China before.

SALAS: So I open the box, and it's just this watch wrapped in some plastic.

FOUNTAIN: A watch that she hadn't ordered, but it was addressed to her - weird.

SALAS: Maybe my mom sent me this as a joke to, like - time to grow up. Get a watch.

FOUNTAIN: She checked. It wasn't her mom, and that was just the start of the strange deliveries. A few months later, another package.

SALAS: And inside is, like, a braided friendship bracelet.

FOUNTAIN: Like you would do in first grade or...

SALAS: Yes.

FOUNTAIN: ...Something like that?

SALAS: Yep.

FOUNTAIN: She got a package with a little ring, a headphone case with no headphones, a fluffy key chain, a piggy bank and some Silly Putty.

SALAS: Oh, there was Silly Putty. I completely forgot about that. When did that come? That came after the piggy bank.

FOUNTAIN: Salas isn't the only person getting a bunch of random packages. This is happening all over the country - all over the world. And Salas has a lot of questions.

SALAS: Who, when, where, why? Why me? Why these things? Who are you, and where is it coming from?

FOUNTAIN: Hey, Mark. Are you in the office right now?

MARK NATKIN: I am.

FOUNTAIN: Looking for some answers, I called up Mark Natkin. He's an investment adviser in Beijing, and I told him all about the strange packages full of random junk showing up on people's doorsteps.

What does that sound like?

NATKIN: (Laughter) I mean, it sounds like, you know, somebody who's gaming a system.

FOUNTAIN: Natkin says there's a war going on out there on e-commerce sites to be at the top of the search results.

NATKIN: If your company is showing up on page 20, you might as well not be showing up at all.

FOUNTAIN: There are a few ways to up your ranking, but one way to do it - and this is what Natkin thinks might be happening here - is when vendors fake entire transactions. Natkin says in China, there's even a word for this. It's called brushing.

Do you think if we tried to talk to brushers, they would talk to us?

NATKIN: (Laughter) I mean, I guess I suspect it'd be difficult.

FOUNTAIN: Fair enough.

We knew that it would be a long shot to find a brusher, but we asked our Beijing bureau to take a look into it. And just a few days later...

MA HA QIAN: Hello, can you hear me?

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. Is this Qian?

QIAN: Yes.

FOUNTAIN: This is Ma Ha Qian - goes by Qian for short. She lives near Shanghai and works in tech. But in her free time, she's a brusher.

What sort of items have you bought and given reviews for?

QIAN: (Through interpreter) Mostly clothing and shoes - sometimes cosmetics.

FOUNTAIN: Talking to Qian really opened up this crazy world. She does 10 or 15 of these a month, gets paid about a dollar per job. And the job is she's supposed to buy a product, the sellers will reimburse her and sometimes she's supposed to review it. But e-commerce sites are trying to crack down on this. They are looking out for fraudulent activity. So Qian tries to look like a regular shopper - like an indecisive shopper.

QIAN: (Through interpreter) I search the keyword and randomly click into several different links and scroll down the page, then go back, then click the right link.

FOUNTAIN: And then they ship something to her - not the thing she ordered. That would be a real purchase - something cheap and small because if the sellers don't send it, it's not a verified purchase. Qian can't write a verified review. Sellers like this, who want to do business in the United States, have to get their packages overseas. And they might not have a partner here, so they might send stuff to unsuspecting recipients like Celina Salas. This is the world of e-commerce right now - a scramble to get to the top of the search results to get five-star ratings. And sometimes there is some sketchy stuff that goes down in that scramble - some sketchy stuff that means you might just come home to a random package on your doorstep. Nick Fountain, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WYNTON KELLY'S "PORTRAIT OF JENNY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.