Washington – The first items to arrive were the plastic fan – which plugs into your computer’s USB port – and the phone charger that doubles as an electric hand warmer.
It was October. Kelly Gallivan, 68, remembers seeing the Amazon box addressed to her husband sitting outside their Acton, Massachusetts, house. She brought it inside, opened it and unwrapped the "techy gizmo stuff".
"What did you order this for?" she remembers asking her 70-year-old husband.
But Mike Gallivan hadn’t ordered them. It was easy for the couple to forget about the puzzling package – until many others started arriving.
More than 20 boxes have been sent to the house, all addressed to Mike Gallivan, none containing the sender’s name or invoices or receipts. The gadgets have started piling in a corner of their house: Phone chargers, USB cords, an outdoor TV plastic cover, a computer vacuum cleaner, a humidifier powered by a USB, a Bluetooth speaker, tent lamps, high-intensity flashlights, a rechargeable dog collar. The most recent one came last Thursday, Kelly Gallivan said.
While the couple hasn’t been charged for any of the items, they fear their names might be connected to some sort of scam.
"At first it was kind of weird. Then kind of funny. Then kind of creepy," Kelly Gallivan said. "We don’t want this stuff. Some of it’s trash, some it’s pretty good stuff. But we just don’t want this stuff and its just an uncomfortable feeling that we keep getting these things."
The Gallivans, who are both retired intensive-care nurses, aren’t the first to receive these types of packages. Anonymous boxes labelled as Amazon packages have been arriving to several Canadian university student unions. Their contents – everything from iPod cases to sex toys – are baffling, said Shawn Wiskar, vice president of student affairs at the University of Regina Students Union. He told the CBC that his staff has had to go door to door and inconspicuously ask students if they’d ordered the items.
"The kind of the question that we have is, is this going to stop and why are these packages coming?" he said.
"Our first guess was perhaps this was an elaborate hoax from one of our partner universities, but it seems like an awful lot of money to be spending on this elaborate prank," Wiskar added.
The Gallivans said they contacted Amazon and told them whatever they could about the packages: That they were delivered by someone in a white van and that their return address appeared to be an Amazon warehouse in Lexington, Kentucky. A representative was able to derive from a package’s bar code that the items were being paid for with a gift card. The Gallivans were told Amazon would investigate but have yet to hear back.
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
An Amazon spokesperson could not be immediately reached by The Washington Post for comment. A representative sent the Boston Globe’s Sean Murphy, who first spoke to the Gallivans about the mysterious packages, the following statements:
"We are investigating inquiries from consumers who have received unsolicited packages as this would violate our policies," [Amazon] said. "We remove sellers in violation of our policies, withhold payments, and work with law enforcement to take appropriate action."
Later, [Amazon] 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."
Two experts who previously worked for Amazon told Murphy that a mystery seller was likely trying to boost the visibility of their product online by creating a false email account, which would then be used to create an Amazon account. Then the seller would buy the product with a gift card and send it to someone random, like the Gallivans, Murphy reported. Once the item is shipped, the seller – now considered a "verified buyer"- can then write a positive review of the product with the false email account. Amazon typically showcases top-rated products.
"More good reviews makes it look like you’re doing better business, so the higher up your name on the list goes," Mike Gallivan said. "If [a seller] can get on the first page of Amazon as opposed to the tenth page, their chances of doing business are better."
The Gallivans aren’t sure how much longer they’ll keep receiving the packages. Some items have been well-received – Mike Gallivan said he plans to use the high-intensity flashlight and a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Other gadgets, like a "little gizmo you put around your cellphone that lights up the area when you want to take your selfie," Kelly Gallivan said, will likely be donated.
The couple isn’t too concerned about the items piling up. They’re mainly worried about their privacy.
"You get a lot of things you don’t want, and that can lead to annoyance, mixed with some resignation," he said. "But what’s bothersome is that my name and info is out there."
The Washington Post