In a bizarre corner of the TikTok universe, people buy unclaimed packages for a few dollars a pop, and then unbox them. Sometimes, they get lucky, as with Louis Vuitton or Nike items; other times, they get stool samples. And strangely, the whole thing is totally legal.
Every day, tens of millions of packages are delivered across the U.S. by Amazon, USPS, UPS, and FedEx. A small percentage of them never make it to their final destination, either because they get lost in a warehouse or mixed up as they’re transferred from truck to truck. This amounts millions of lost packages every year. Where do they go? Well, according to recent reporting on CNET and Business Insider, people can buy these misplaced packages at physical auctions or online liquidation sites, often without knowing what’s inside.
Amazon is well-known for its enormous waste problem. One recent investigation by ITV News found that a warehouse in Scotland threw out more than 130,000 new or lightly used goods every week. Globally, some estimate that Amazon dumps more than a million goods a year. Reports found that these items tended to be returns that were in very good condition or entirely unused; workers said Amazon didn’t seem to have a system for reselling them. The company responded to the investigation by saying it’s working toward “a goal of zero product disposal.”
Separate from the products that are dumped at Amazon warehouses, CNET says some Amazon products in the U.S. end up on a website called Liquidation. The site sells unclaimed packages in bulk from big retailers, including Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Home Depot. In some cases, you have no idea what you’re bidding on; in others, you can see the category along with the estimated retail value of the goods. Current Amazon bundles include a pallet of assorted appliances worth $3,000, which is currently bid up to $230, and a bunch of beauty products worth $1,766, currently bid up to $150. Amazon did not immediately responded to our request for more information about how it handles unclaimed packages.
When it comes to the USPS, the organization’s guidelines state that packages that aren’t claimed after 60 days are collected and then either donated to charities, trashed, or auctioned off on a liquidation site called GovDeals. The site allows you to browse through categories of products, including clothes, computer hardware, and kitchen goods. Items tend to be sold in very large lots. For instance, you can get a pallet of assorted books in unknown condition, with a minimum bid of $250. Or a lot of 212 used phones for a minimum bid of $800. While the products themselves tend to sell for significantly less than retail, shipping can be very expensive—upwards of $100—because items are often bulky and heavy.
One TikTok user, Addison Hearrin, found bins of what appeared to be USPS packages in a store called Treasure Hunt in Evansville, Indiana, where each package cost $5. The downside was that it was impossible to tell what was inside. She ended up with shoes, a Nike bra and jogger set, neither of which fit her, as well as a Louis Vuitton purse. (She’s unsure whether the purse is real or fake.) When it came to Hearrin’s haul, the name and addresses remained on the packages, which appeared to present a privacy violation.
When we reached out to USPS, a spokesperson said that in these TikTok videos, there’s no way to tell where the packages actually came from. “With regards to the social media videos that the CNET article links to, there is no way to tell from those videos if all the packages in the store or the purchased packages were handled by the United States Postal Service,” says Kim Frum, a senior PR representative at USPS.
Since many of these unclaimed packages are sold in bulk, buyers get creative about what to do with the items they’ve purchased. There are websites, like Swap Madness, which help locate people who are trying to offload unclaimed packages. In one TikTok video, a buyer shows a haul of USPS packages she got from one of these meetups at a cost of $1 a pop. It ain’t pretty. One package is a stool sample, another is a stuffed Winnie the Pooh toy that looks like it’s in a coffin.
While the concept of paying for someone’s poop seems bad, it’s not the worst than can happen in this strange economy. Some buyers say they’ve encountered illegitimate online sellers who take customers’ money without actually sending them the packages they bought, even going so far as to give them fake tracking numbers. To avoid ending up in this situation, you can check the Better Business Bureau website to read customer reviews of sellers, or go through established package auction sites, like GovDeals.
Just remember, you may end up buying crap. Sometimes literally.