Opinion: A new Internet glitch

It turns out I’m not the only one in town getting unwanted sex toys in the mail. Or to be more precise, getting them from Amazon. I’m not one to judge, but if this is a real trend, it definitely has the potential to get pretty embarrassing. “Grandma, open that box and tell me if I got my new screwdriver set from Amazon.” Damn!

OK, where are we going with this? Well, at a time when you thought the world couldn’t get stranger, and just in time for the holidays, comes a brand new internet-based glitchcourtesy of a peculiar symptom of the 21st century economy, which has infiltrated the still very young business of online shopping.

Young? Haven’t we shopped online forever? Okay Boomer, no. According to Money magazine, the first online consumer purchases were made in 1994, which in case you were wondering, was a full year before Amazon sold its first book. Before 1994, if you wanted to buy something off your couch, it usually required a phone, an 800 number, and a long conversation with a customer service representative who actually worked somewhere in this hemisphere. It was clear, direct and uncomplicated.

Today, however, buying online is by no means simple. According to the latest data, more than 75% of Americans will shop online at least once a month, with half of these people shopping at least 2-3 times. More than 50 percent will shop on Amazon. That’s a lot of shopping. But how do you know what to buy? Well, more than 63 percent of all Americans, whether they plan to shop online or in-store, begin their online shopping quest, agonizing over their decisions using online tools like likes, reviews, and customer feedback. And considering that e-commerce activity is valued at $5.3 trillion, it should come as no surprise that companies are turning to less scrupulous ways to modify these tools to claim bigger pieces of that pie.

One of those shady new tweaks is called “brushing.” Initially harmless to the consumer, brushing is a scam that marketers use to manipulate data that you want to trust when looking for “the best” in whatever it is you’re trying to buy. Data, in the form of fake likes and reviews, that most people refer to when considering their purchases. Which is what brings us back to unwanted sex toys. And by the way, brushing isn’t just about sex toys. This is just the example that led you to read this far.

For the past two years, curious homeowners in the city have been picking up Amazon parcels left by their doors unaware they’ve been brushed. “Honey, did you order anything?” has become a familiar question asked just as the box is opened to find… a keychain, exercise bands, Tupperware knockoffs, shrink-wrapped towels, iPhone cases, massage rollers, a watch, board games, chamois , electrical cords, mini tool sets, photo frames, novelty gag gifts… sex toys… you get the idea (and yes, each of these things was an item delivered to someone locally). These innocent looking and usually very cheap and cheaply made gadgets, gizmos and gee-gaws are sent to customers who have never ordered them, who have never paid for them, and who generally look at them and wonder, ” But what…?”

So why do companies skim the unwitting? Well, it starts with 3rd party online sellers who want to create fake positive reviews for genuine merchandise, then fake Amazon accounts are created to “buy” those goods, by shipping them to some random address they find online. But instead of shipping genuine and expensive stuff, they send cheaper and smaller items. Amazon has now been led to believe that a real transaction has occurred and that it is possible to write a verified review. See? No harm to you and you might even get something moderately useful.

Except remember how we said brushing is “harmless initially?” Last week, millions of shoppers made millions of online purchases based on what they thought were thousands of 5-star reviews. Except the reviews are fake, the merchandise is probably rubbish and a lot of people are going to feel like they have a lump of coal this holiday season. What is the moral of this fairy tale? Shop smart, shop local.

David Rafferty is a Greenwich resident.