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Tips for Dealing with Suspicious Mail

by Mary Beth Guard, Esq.

Updated 10/23/08

In the seven years that have elapsed since the anthrax powder mail scares of 2001, the FBI, U.S. Postal Service Inspection Service, and state and local emergency response teams and law enforcement have responded to and investigated thousands of reports of similar threats, virtually all of which have been proven costly hoaxes. Recent reports of a new series of mailed threats involving suspicious white powder serve as cogent reminders that bankers cannot afford to be casual about how they handle the millions of pieces of mail they receive daily.

Be certain that your mailroom procedures address the proper precautions designed to keep your personnel and institution safe from dangerous substances that could be contained in incoming mail. Each individual within your institution who handles or opens packages or mail should be alerted to what to look out for and how to respond to suspicious letters or packages.

Use the "Email this article" link at the top of this page to easily email this article to others in your organization.

The appropriate response to take will depend upon the type of threat and whether the package/letter has been opened. To deal with the various types of potential threats, have the following items readily available:

  • tweezers
  • sealable plastic bags, various sizes, including some large enough to hold contaminated clothing
  • a couple of generic one-size-fits all robes or sweat suits for affected persons to change into
  • anti-bacterial soap
  • rubber gloves
  • protective mask for the mouth and nose area
  • the local FBI telephone number
  • the phone number for your local police if your area does not have 911 service
  • your evacuation procedure
  • this illustrated "What Should You Do" advisory from the FBI. (Print it out and circulate copies.)

The proper way to respond will depend upon the nature of the threat. Here, we've put together information from various sources, including the U.S. Postal Service, the Attorney General, the ATF, the CDC and others to provide l) clues to look for to help you detect suspicious packages/letters; and 2) directions on what to do if you believe a package or letter contains a bomb, a radiological weapon, or a biological or chemical threat.

Detecting Suspicious Packages/Letters
The following characteristics on a package or letter should trigger suspicion:

  • it is unexpected or from an unfamiliar source;
  • it is marked "Personal" or "Confidential" or "To be opened in the privacy of" or "Your lucky day is here" or "Prize enclosed"
  • there is no return address, or the return address does not check out as legitimate;
  • there is excessive postage;
  • it comes via foreign mail, air mail, or special delivery;
  • it is hand-delivered, or "dropped off for a friend";
  • the addressee information has one or more of the following flaws: improper spelling of common names, places, or titles; or incorrect titles; or titles but no names; or misspellings of common words, or it is addressed to someone no longer with your organization;
  • it appears to have foreign writing, addresses, or postage, or it has no postage or non-canceled postage;
  • it shows inconsistencies, such as a difference between the city and state shown in the postmark and the return address
  • it is tied with string or twine;
  • it has excessive tape or other material to secure it;
  • it has oily stains or discolorations;
  • it has powdery substance on or in it;
  • it has protruding wires, tin foil or strange odors;
  • it has lumps, bulges, or protrusions;
  • it is lopsided or heavy-sided, or is an unusual weight for its size, or is oddly shaped;
  • the package or letter arrives before or after a phone call from an unknown person asking if the item was received;

What should you do if a package/letter seems suspicious?
If a letter or package appears to be suspicious and it has a powdery or granular substance (in one of the 2001 scares, the substance was described as brown and granular or sandlike), or for some other reason you believe it is contaminated with anthrax, follow these steps:

  • Do not handle the envelope or package.
  • Do not shake or empty the contents of any suspicious envelope or package.
  • If any of the powder has spilled out onto a surface, do not try to clean it up. Cover the spilled contents immediately with anything (CDC recommends, as examples, clothing, paper, trash can, etc.) and do not remove this cover.
  • if you touched the envelope or package or touched anything that came into contact with the envelope or package, avoid touching your face or anything else. Wash immediately with anti-bacterial soap and water.
  • Remove any clothing and/or other items which came into contact with the envelope/package or the substance and place them into plastic bags, including other papers, deskpads, keyboards, pens, etc. Put on the nose/mouth mask and the rubber gloves before removing clothing and other items. Handle the items with tweezers, if possible. Seal the bags. Re-wash hands. (The bags should be turned over to law enforcement when they arrive.)
  • Isolate the parcel/envelope.
  • Leave the room and close the door, or section off the area to prevent others from entering.
  • Make a list of all people who were in the room or area. Note those who had actual contact with the powder. Provide this list to law enforcement officials and public health authorities.
  • If you suspect there has been a general release of biological material or the powder has become airborne, immediately should stop movement of people to and from the building. Then stop all airflow - shut off fans and blowers, air intakes, if possible, and close off all outside openings. During evacuation, occupants should put a wet scarf or cloth over their mouths and nose and exit the building as soon as possible.
  • Evacuate the immediate area, following your evacuation plan.
  • Call local law enforcement and the local office of the FBI.
  • Follow the FBI's directives.
  • If the package/envelope was received by mail, you should also call a Postal Inspector to report that you've received a parcel in the mail that may contain biological or chemical substances.
  • As soon as practical, shower with soap and water. According to the CDC, you should not use bleach or other disinfectant on your skin.

What if it is a suspicious package/letter of some other sort?
If you have a suspicious letter or package, but you believe it may contain an explosive device or a radiologic substance, instead of a biological or chemical weapon:

  • Do not handle or open the article;
  • Isolate the letter/package;
  • Evacuate immediate area, using your emergency evacuation procedures;
  • Call local law enforcement (911) and the local office of FBI;
  • Do not turn light switches on or off.

OSHA's website provides a Model Health & Safety Plan for Clean-up of Facilities Contaminated with Anthrax Spores

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a webpage on Anthrax Information for Mail Handlers

FEMA's site features several pages relating to Hazardous Materials, including links to information for before, during and after a hazardous materials incident.

More info and links are available on our "Anthrax - Knowledge is Power page.

First published on 2001. Revised 10/23/2008

First published on 10/23/2008

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