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Anthrax and the Mail
How to Spot and Deal With a Suspicious Letter or Package

NPR Science Desk primer on anthrax

search More broadcast coverage of the anthrax investigation.

Oct. 15, 2001 -- The increasing number of suspected anthrax cases in recent days have heightened public concerns about the mail. Following are tips for evaluating and dealing with suspicious letters or packages.

FBI advisory poster

An FBI poster advises the public on what to do if a suspicious letter or package is received.
Photo: FBI
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What constitutes a suspicious parcel?

According to the United States Postal Service and FBI, suspicious items are those that:

Are unexpected, or from someone unfamiliar to you

Are addressed to someone no longer with your organization or are otherwise outdated

Have no return address, or have one that can't be verified as legitimate

Have labels or writing containing misspelled words

Are addressed to someone by title only or have an incorrect title

Are of unusual weight, relative to their size, or are lopsided or oddly shaped

Are marked with restrictive markings, such as "Personal" or "Confidential"

Have protruding wires, strange odors or stains; are discolored or show crystallization on the wrapper

Show a city or state in the postmark that doesn't match the return address

Are packed with excessive tape or string

What should you do if you receive such an item in the mail?

Handle it with care: Don't shake or bump it or try to empty its contents.

Do not try to open the parcel, or to smell or taste its contents.

Isolate the item. "Place the envelope or package in a plastic bag or some other type of container to prevent leakage of contents," the Centers for Disease Control says. If a container is not available, cover the envelope or package with anything -- clothing, paper or trash can -- and do not remove this cover.

Evacuate the immediate area. Leave the room and close the door to prevent others from entering.

Wash your hands with soap and warm water to prevent spreading any powder to your face.

Call police at 911 to report the item. If you're at work, also report it to your supervisor and building security.

Sources: FBI, United States Postal Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Other Resources

United States Postal Service

FBI and photos of anthrax-laced letters sent to Sen. Tom Daschle, NBC's Tom Brokaw and the New York Post.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention