Detection & Handling of Suspicious Packages

BY JIM CORBETT In my first article for I would like to focus on a topic that many of my clients have raised lately and is extremely relevant to all businesses and organizations. The ...

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In my first article for I would like to focus on a topic that many of my clients have raised lately and is extremely relevant to all businesses and organizations. The topic is the detection and handling of suspicious letters or packages.

Dangerous mail can be divided into two major threats; those that contain explosives and those that contain chemical or biological agents. Historically, explosives have been the number one threat with the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, capturing headlines with his 16 attacks between 1978 and 1995. But in October 2001 the first Anthrax contaminated mail was reported and chemical/biological contaminated mail became the main threat.

Mail containing Anthrax bacteria spores (Bacillus Anthracis) has been responsible for 5 deaths and sickening 13 others. Ricin (Ricinus Communis) is made from castor beans and a dose of 500 micrograms, or the size of a pinhead, can kill an adult. Letters containing this substance recently forced the closedown of Senate office buildings in Washington, DC. VX Nerve Agent, Cyanide, and Smallpox are some other examples of a long list of substances that can be used to attack through the mail. Organizations must realize that all are at risk from mail attacks either directly or indirectly. Organizations can face the threat indirectly by their mail being cross-contaminated at US Postal facilities by mail containing a poison.

The below are security industry and US Government accepted practices to identify suspicious packages, operate mail areas, and respond to suspicious packages.

Identifying Suspicious Mail:
*Excessive postage, non-canceled postage or no postage on mail.
*Postmark is from a different area than the listed return address.
*Strange or no return address.
*Unexpected packages from foreign countries.
*Mail not addressed to a particular person or improper spelling of names or address information.
*Packages marked "Personal", "Confidential", "Do Not X-ray", "Fragile" or with suspicious messages, threats or symbols on them.
*Unprofessionally wrapped packages that use excessive string or tape.
*Mail with soft spots (powdery substance felt).
*Mail that is lopsided or uneven. Mail with excessive weight or with bulges.
*Mail that has oily stains, discolorations, or odors.
*Mail that has aluminum foil or wires protruding. And of course ticking packages.

Proper Mail Sorting Room and Handling Procedures:
*Mail handling areas should be isolated from regular work areas with close fitting doors installed.
*Access should be limited to mail handling areas.
*Mail handling area should be wet-cleaned and vacuumed with HEPA vacuum cleaners.
*Mail handling area should be separated from regular work areas with a solid wall to contain blasts.
*Mail handlers should wear protective impermeable gloves, goggles or face shields and in locations with large mail sorting equipment respirators or masks should be used.
*Mail handling areas should be equipped with hand and eye wash stations. Handlers should always wash their hands with soap and water after working with mail.
*Emergency contact numbers should be prominently posted in the mail area.

Handling Suspicious Packages:
*Remain calm and do not pick up or open mail if you have not done so already. Do not shake contents of mail out.
*Advise others in the room but do not carry the package around to show them or allow others to examine it.
*Put the mail on a stable surface. Do not sniff, touch, taste, or look closely at the package or contents that may have spilled out of it.
*Do not touch any part of your body with special emphasis on your eyes, mouth and nose.
*Turn off fans and the ventilation system if possible. Close all doors and windows.
*Wash hands with soap and water and have anyone else who was working in the area or handling mail also wash thoroughly.
*Contact 911, if possible have someone make the call for you.
*If you are experiencing any symptoms call Poison Control for directions on what you can do until emergency services arrive at 1-800-222-1222.
*Keep other workers away from the area and stay in the vicinity until emergency services arrive.
*Provide a list to emergency staff with names of all who could be contaminated.
*For mail suspected of containing explosives- put the package on a stable surface or in a blast resistant container and evacuate the building.

Please remember to follow the above guidelines as much as possible when dealing with your own mail at home. If you have any questions on this topic or if you would like me to cover a certain security related topic in the future please contact me: