Capt. Gary Stanyer of Key West holds the package of mystery seeds he received from China on July 28. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

It’s not every day a reporter tells her colleagues, “I’m going to take a photo of this guy’s seed package.”’

But that’s what happened on July 28, when Keys Weekly got word that Capt. Gary Stanyer, owner of Dolphin Safari Charters in Key West, had received in that day’s mail one of the strange packages from China containing what some national media outlets had dubbed “mystery seeds.”

As of July 29, agriculture officials in 31 states had warned people not to touch or plant the seeds, as they were of unknown origin. 

Stanyer, who’s originally from Zimbabwe and wears a bracelet made from crocodile skin, said he initially thought the small, gray shipping envelope was empty.

“It didn’t feel as if anything was inside,” he said. “

When Stanyer saw the Chinese writing on the envelope, he initially thought it was something he had ordered months earlier from a Chinese website and then forgotten.

“You know those websites that take three months to get here and by the time it arrives, you’ve forgotten you ordered it,” he said. “I thought it was something like that.”

But when he opened the waterproof envelope, he found only a packet with a small amount of black or dark brown powder-looking material.

“It almost looks like gunpowder,” Stanyer said, although he hasn’t opened the small baggie containing the powder. As requested by state agriculture officials, Stanyer mailed the package to them the next day.

The package Capt. Gary Stanyer received originated in China and contains a fine dark brown or black powder. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Mystery solved?

The mystery seed packages began showing up in randomly selected American mailboxes earlier this month. By this week, people in all 50 states had received such a package and agriculture officials were warning against handling the seeds or planting what could be invasive species that are detrimental to ecosystems. The seeds have varied in size, color and overall appearance.

The packages appear to have been shipped by China’s state-owned postal company and contained Chinese lettering on the exterior, advertising products ranging from jewelry to toys, states a CBS News report. 

Federal investigators with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) have said they believe the packages are part of a “brushing” scam in which online vendors send out unsolicited packages to help boost their product ratings. 

According to the technology website Fast Company, there are a few variations of the scam, “but one version is that sellers create fake customer accounts, buy their own products—usually very cheap or worthless versions of products—and send them to people’s homes in other countries. The online customer accounts might be fake, but the addresses are real, and the sellers can then use those accounts to register real deliveries, post glowing reviews of the products, and improve their rankings on e-commerce sites like Amazon or eBay.”

Stanyer promised to keep Keys Weekly about any response he gets from the USDA. And we thank him for letting us photograph his package.

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