The first time Nikki unexpectedly received a sex toy in an Amazon box, she thought there must have been a mix-up at the factory. She’d bought some mascara that hadn’t arrived yet.
“At first I believed it to be a mistake,” she said.
But then the other packages came, one by one. A cord to a Bluetooth device was next. No gift receipt, no footprints and, as she’d discover over the next week, no help. The last package had headphones.
“The weird part about it is if this were a prank or a hacker sending things to women on the internet, it’d be expensive. I looked [the sex toy] up, and it’s $25, which is sort of substantial,” she said.
“It seems so personal.”
Nikki’s story is part of a broiling internal mystery that is flummoxing Amazon, according to a source at the company: Someone is shipping out unsolicited products, frequently sex toys, to seemingly random customers, and the company does not yet know why they’re being purchased, and why they’re being shipped to people like Nikki.
An Amazon spokesperson said that the unsolicited packages sent to Nikki are “part of some bad behavior that we are investigating.”
“We are investigating inquiries from consumers who have received unsolicited packages as this would violate our policies. We have confirmed the sellers involved did not receive names or shipping addresses from Amazon,” this spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
“We remove sellers in violation of our policies, withhold payments, and work with law enforcement to take appropriate action.”
Nikki spent much of last week fearing she was being cyberstalked, she said, “considering the item he sent to me costs a substantial amount and came from a nicer-looking company.” She mostly wanted to know if whoever was sending the packages was nearby, and how involved the police should be.
She took to Amazon’s customer service phone tree, attempting to figure out how worried she should be. She had read a story on the internet about a British man who had been using Amazon’s gift service to send erotica to a woman he was cyberstalking, and read the company “refuses to disclose the identity of senders ‘for reasons of confidentiality.’”
“I mainly want to know this man’s name and where he is located in order to ensure that he isn’t in my city,” she said. “This was also beginning to affect my roommate, and neither of us are keen on staying at our own apartment anymore.”
Over the next few days, Nikki claims she was repeatedly ignored, lied to, or not taken seriously by countless customer service representatives in an effort to find out why cryptic packages with her name on them were winding up on her doorstep.
On Nikki’s first call with Amazon, she “had to fight with a representative to take my concerns seriously.” She was then sent to a supervisor a who was “under the impression that I was simply calling to find out who sent me a fun gift to satisfy my own curiosity,” she said.
Those first two steps, she said, happened several times.
Over time, calling the customer service line back over and over, she would piece together information. The name on the account that shipped the product was different from the one used on the credit card, she discovered, all of which were different from her name and address.
Eventually, she was able to find out the man’s full name and state through a game of guess and check with a customer service representative, because Nikki was told she “could guess names and she’d tell me ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
One supervisor gave what Nikki said was a fake phone number to push a complaint up the chain, and she said another customer service employee confirmed that the number wasn’t associated with Amazon.
Later, she was told Amazon was conducting an internal review to “ensure this would never happen again,” but wouldn’t have access to who was sending her the packages and why.
“This was obviously unacceptable, as my primary concern remains finding out whether or not this man is in my city,” she said. “As we all know, billing addresses do not always match a person’s location. The fact that his account is associated with Missouri is virtually meaningless. This guy could be anywhere.”
That’s when she decided to get the police involved.
“It was clear to me that no one was able to help me, and many were simply unwilling,” she said.
Nikki was told by a supervisor, the highest ranking person she’d spoken to yet, to bring law enforcement officers on the phone along with her. She did, and it didn’t help.
“The supervisor kept repeating that I needed a [police] officer. The officer was speaking to her, repeating that he was an officer and that I had followed through on all of the specific instructions I was given for when an officer was present,” she said.
On that phone call, after hours on the phone, she was told that the only notes made by Amazon in her account were the words “police report.”
The officer then asked for a number to follow up on the report and “Amazon either refused to give it to him, or they did not have access to the number themselves,” said Nikki.
The representative told Nikki and the officer they would have to mail in a subpoena.
“In the subpoena email that we got, they were asking me to provide them with a name, credit card, and bank number of the person who sent it to me,” she said.
“Nobody’s listening to me.”
The Daily Beast repeatedly asked Amazon to comment on Nikki’s treatment in the dozens of phone calls and emails with the company’s customer service department. The company did not comment on the specific allegations.
News reports of families and college students receiving random Amazon packages have sprouted up everywhere from Massachusetts to several university cities in Canada over the past month. A student at Canada’s Ryerson University received a vibrator. A student union at University of Regina received a male sex toy called a Fleshlight. An Amazon source said sex toys, for some reason, have made up a sizable portion of the packages.
The reports have led many to guess who would go to such great lengths and expense to send random items, everything from vibrators to turntables, to strangers on the internet.
Sources both in and out of Amazon have one theory. It’s called, in Amazon-speak, verified review hacking.
Amazon uses a review system that heavily weights “verified purchases”—reviews by users who have purchased a specific product through Amazon—over other reviews.
This could give sellers incentive to buy and ship their own products to strangers from dummy accounts. Those dummy accounts could then give the product a 5-star review and, in turn, help it surface higher in Amazon and Google searches.
That was the going theory of two former Amazon workers who talked to the Boston Globe’s Sean Murphy.
But the Amazon spokesperson appeared to rebuff and downplayed the idea of the unsolicited packages being part of a widespread review scam.
“We investigate every report of customers receiving unsolicited packages, and thus far our investigations have shown very few reviews submitted associated with these shipments,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue our ongoing efforts to prevent abuse and will ban all vendors and reviewers who abuse the reviews system.”
Amazon’s investigation, according to a source, has yielded one important piece of information: If there’s a common denominator between the customers, Amazon said it’s not coming from a mailing list or any other common group within Amazon’s database.
Nikki’s name and address are exactly right on the packages that have been shipped to her, which means her address might have been accessible through a mailing list or data breach elsewhere.
An Amazon source said there’s currently no way to stop the packages from arriving at Nikki’s doorstep, like a temporary hold on packages sent to her home, or a two-factor security feature that would require her to prove her identity before receiving a package at her address.
Nikki asked for The Daily Beast to only use her first name, in part because of the anonymous packages. She also feared local political consequences in Pittsburgh, where she lives, as her city’s mayor is publicly vying for Amazon to build its second headquarters in the city.
Nikki said she doesn’t care about the packages themselves.
“I’ve seen all these other reports now, and all of these other people are saying they got these really cool gadgets,” Nikki said on Tuesday, after The Daily Beast let her know of Amazon’s findings.
“I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I get one of those?’ At least send me the Bluetooth speaker to go along with the cord.”
Nikki now just wants to make absolutely certain she’s safe in her own home, which is still not something Amazon can guarantee until the investigation is complete.
“The kicker here is that I completely understand why it was so difficult to access this man’s information,” she said. “I appreciate that Amazon has policies in place to protect their users’ privacy, and it shouldn’t be easy for a customer or even the police to access a person’s private information through a corporation.”
She’d also like an explanation for her lost week tangled in Amazon’s customer service web, when she was sent an anonymous sex toy with no explanation—and it took a public relations crisis to get an answer.
“Amazon must address the fact that every representative I spoke to gave me different and often conflicting information,” she said.