How to Deal with Suspicious Mail and Packages

In the weeks after the hijackings of 11 September 2001, there were a number of confirmed cases of anthrax exposure through items sent through the mail. Because some of the packages were sent outside of the U.S., the entire world is a potential target of similar attacks. It is not clear if the anthrax attacks were related to the earlier hijacking events, but it is clear that the potential threat can be overcome through a few basic security procedures. The following advice can help you safely deal with suspicious letters or packages that may be sent to you.

How to Spot Suspicious Letters or Packages

A letter or package is suspicious if one or more of the following is true:

  • Has any powdery substance on the outside
  • It is unexpected or from someone unfamiliar to you
  • Has excessive postage
  • It is addressed using incorrect titles or titles with no name, or has misspellings of common words
  • The writing or typing is sloppy or uneven
  • Is addressed to someone no longer with your organization or are otherwise outdated
  • Have no return address, or has one that can't be verified as legitimate
  • Is of unusual weight, given their size, or are lopsided or oddly shaped
  • Has an unusual amount of tape
  • Is marked with restrictive endorsements, such as "Personal" or "Confidential"
  • Shows a city or location in the postmark that does not match the return address
  • Has strange odors or stains.

What to Do with a Suspicious Letter or Package

  • Handle it with care and avoid shaking it or bumping it
  • Isolate the letter or package
  • Evacuate the area
  • Do not smell or taste the letter, package, or contents
  • Dispose of any normal mail that you do not open
  • Do not allow children to open mail
  • Keep mail away from food preparation areas
  • If your clothes are contaminated, carefully remove them and isolate them
  • Contact the appropriate emergency organization (fire, police, medical, HAZMAT unit etc.)
  • Contact the appropriate postal organization or shipping service.

Travel Advice for Any Letter or Package

Whenever you travel with any mail or package, there are a few basic things you should always do. First, never travel with any items that are not allowed on an airplane. If you don't know what's inside, open it up and check before you go to the airport. Second, if you can, carry your mail and small packages in your carry-on bag. You probably won't be able to get compensation for the value of items lost, damaged, or stolen from your checked bag.

Other Resources
Chemical and Biological Warfare Agents
Dealing with In-Flight Biological and Chemical Threats
U.S. Postal Service

Dealing with Suspicious Mail and Packages -- Revised: 18 June 2010