Suspicious Mail: Characteristics of Potentially Dangerous Packages

Indicators of a suspicious-looking package

Suspicious packages in the mail aren’t all that common these days, but they do show up occasionally. And if you don’t know how to handle them properly, they can have destructive – or even deadly – consequences. VOTI Detection’s state-of-the-art scanning machines give you a big edge in searching out suspicious packages, but if you do find something suspicious, how are you supposed to deal with it?

Here, we’ll try to shed some light on the art of handling suspicious mail. We’ll explain why mail sometimes looks suspicious, and describe signs you can look for to determine whether mail really is suspicious or not. We’ll also outline what to do with suspicious mail if you think you’ve found a piece, depending on what you think might be inside.

What is covered in this article

IMPORTANT

The information here is a set of informal guidelines and not official protocols approved by any entity. Please consult your organization, local emergency authorities, and/or the USPIS website for the proper procedures in your area when handling suspicious packages.

We’ll begin by answering a simple (if obvious) question: what is suspicious mail?

 

What is suspicious mail?

Suspicious mail is any letter or package that is highly unusual compared to those you typically process. It may contain a device or substance intended to harm the recipient (and perhaps others) and/or destroy property. Examples include bombs, biological agents, or toxic/radioactive substances.

A package may be suspicious if it contains a powder, a liquid, or an object you weren’t expecting or can’t identify. An accompanying threatening note is also another sure sign that you’re dealing with suspicious mail or packages.

Canada Post guide to identifying suspicious letters or parcels
(Image credit: Canada Post)

People often target these types of packages towards particular individuals or organizations, and for specific reasons. Some are acting on grudges, including business deals gone sour. Others are looking to extort money or information. And still others want to terrorize people in order to provoke social or political change.

Fortunately, suspicious mail packages are relatively rare. But it’s still important to be able to identify them at home or at work to keep yourself and others safe. How do you do that? We’ll explain in the next section.

 

What does suspicious mail look like?

Before you learn how to handle suspicious mail, you need to know how to pick it out. The easiest way is to compare it to the types of letters and parcels you usually receive or process. Generally, there will be something – or a combination of things – that make it stand out from items you order from stores, or things from people or businesses you recognize.

There are many qualities that may flag a piece of mail as suspicious, but not all of them mean that a package is potentially dangerous. Generally, though, the more of them there are, the greater the chance that you’re handling suspicious mail and packages. Ultimately, it comes down to your best judgment, but here are some common signs to look for.

  • Strange or missing return address — The return address is to an unfamiliar or even made-up place, or to an unfamiliar person. It could also be in a foreign language or just completely absent.

  • Irregular postage — There is an excessive number of stamps or other postage marks on the package. The postage may also indicate the package is from a foreign country and/or a location different from the return address.

  • Address oddities — The package is addressed to a business title only, someone identified by an incorrect business title, or a person who is no longer a part of your organization. The address may be handwritten poorly or with unfamiliar writing, or may even be put together with cut-and-pasted letters or words. It may also contain spelling mistakes.

  • Unnecessary restrictive instructions — There is an unusually high number of special endorsements, or ones you wouldn’t typically expect to see, on the package. Examples include “confidential,” “personal,” “private,” “do not X-ray,” “fragile,” “handle with care,” “do not delay,” and so on.

  • Excessive binding material — The package is held together by an abnormally large amount of string or tape. This is extra suspicious if it’s just a letter, or if different kinds of tape are used.

  • Unusual shape or texture — A package might feel heavier than you expect it to. It may also have areas that appear hollow or bulging, and feel either soft/springy or stiff to the touch. You may also feel an unusual amount of pressure or resistance when trying to open the package.  You may even see wires or other contents poking out of the package.

  • Other abnormal sensations — You may notice other oddities about potentially dangerous mail. For example, it may have stains, crystals, or discolorations from dirt, oil, grease, or other substances on it. You may also be able to feel other things inside the package such as powders, liquids, or aluminum foil. Or, you could notice that the package emits a strange smell (like almonds), or makes a weird sound such as buzzing, ticking, or sloshing. 

To visualize some of these hallmarks of suspicious mail, check out the US Postal Inspection Service’s suspicious mail or packages poster:

USPIS suspicious mail or packages poster
(Image credit: USPIS)

Now that you know some common identifiers of suspicious packages, what do you do if you think you’ve actually found one? Suspicious mail handling procedures can vary across organizations and jurisdictions, but we’ll attempt to provide a framework here of some general best practices so you know what to do.

 

Handling suspicious mail: procedures to follow

There are some common actions you should take if you think you’re handling a suspicious package. But how to deal with suspicious mail and parcels correctly can differ slightly depending on what you suspect is inside. This section will discuss some common contents of suspicious packages, a bit about how to identify them, and what you should do if you encounter them.

IMPORTANT

The instructions here are for general informational purposes only, and are not official guidelines from VOTI Detection. Please defer to the specific suspicious mail procedures laid out by your organization, local emergency authorities, and/or the USPIS website.

If you suspect the mail contains a bomb or explosive substances

A suitcase scan revealing a bomb

In general, bombs in letters or parcels give off several clues if you pay close attention. For example, the package might feel abnormally heavy, or it might have an unusual shape that makes it look rigid or lopsided. You may also be able to see or feel components of a bomb inside the package, such as wires or aluminum foil. You may hear a buzzing or ticking sound from the mechanism inside, or detect a weird smell that could be some sort of explosive substance.

Here are some general steps you can take if you think you’ve found this type of suspicious mail.

  1. If possible, refuse the package outright.

  2. If you have already accepted the package, do not open it, and handle it as little as possible.

  3. Leave the package where it is, and attempt to clear the area around it as much as possible. Do not put the package in water or in a confined space, such as a filing cabinet or desk drawer.

  4. Evacuate everyone else out of the room, and do not let any of them handle the package. Close all doors on your way out of the room, but leave windows open in an attempt to vent any explosive gases.

  5. Wait until you are a safe distance away from the package, and then report the suspicious mail or parcel to your supervisor (if applicable) and call 9-1-1. If possible, do NOT use a cell phone or some other form of radio communication to do this, as the signal may accidentally set the bomb off if you’re too close to it. Be sure to describe the situation in which you found the suspicious package, including who else was present. 

  6. Wait in a safe place with a telephone until emergency responders arrive, and they will advise you on what to do next.

 

If you think there’s suspicious powder in the mail

Pile of suspicious powder beside an opened letter

You may be able to feel suspicious powder in the mail directly on the package, or inside through the packaging. The package may also have stains, crystallized formations, or other discolorations caused by the powder. It may even give off a strange smell. If you encounter these features of a suspicious package, here’s what to do.

  1. If possible, refuse the package outright.

  2. If you have already accepted the package, handle it as little as possible. Do not shake, smell, or taste the package or anything that comes out of it. Also, if possible, do not open the package or attempt to empty its contents in any way. If you have already opened the package, re-close it if that’s feasible, but do not try to clean up the powder if it spills out.

  3. If possible, put the package in a plastic bag or other sealable container (but not in water or a confined space, such as a desk drawer or filing cabinet) to keep more powder from leaking out. Otherwise, cover it with a plastic sheet, trash can, spare piece of clothing, paper – anything you can get your hands on. In either case, leave the package where you found it and clear the area around it as much as you can.

  4. Wash your hands with soap and water. Also, if any of your clothes get any powder on them, take them off and, if possible, put them in a plastic bag or some other sealable container.

  5. Evacuate everyone else out of the room, and do not let any of them handle the package. If you can, turn off any nearby fans or ventilation systems. Then close all windows and doors on your way out of the room. 

  6. If you noticed the package giving off strong odors, visible or strong fumes, smoke, or effects that gave people difficulty breathing or other symptoms of illness, activate the nearest fire alarm.

  7. Notify your supervisor (if applicable) and call 9-1-1. Be sure to describe the situation in which you found the suspicious package, including who else was present. Also inform them that they may need to turn off nearby fans or ventilation systems to keep the contaminant from spreading.

  8. As soon as you can, take a shower with soap and warm water.

  9. Wait in a safe place with a telephone until emergency responders arrive, and they will advise you on what to do next.

 

If you suspect the mail contains harmful biological, chemical, or radioactive substances

Hazardous material leaking out of a package

Suspicious packages that contain harmful biological or chemical substances may make a sloshing sound when you handle them, or give off a weird smell. They may also have stains, discolorations, or crystallizations from the substance on the wrapping, or even be visibly leaking the substance.

Radioactive substances can be more difficult to detect. Some of them give off similar clues to harmful biological or chemical agents, but your best defense against them is X-ray and radiation scanning equipment. Knowing that, a soft tell you can use to identify them is if the package has the “do not X-ray” endorsement on it, in addition to other signs of being suspicious.

In any of these cases, the suspicious mail protocol is similar to the one for if you discover a powder.

  1. If possible, refuse the package outright.

  2. If you have already accepted the package, handle it as little as possible. Do not shake, smell, or taste the package or anything that comes out of it. Also, if possible, do not open the package or attempt to empty its contents in any way. If you have already opened the package, re-close it if that’s feasible, but do not attempt to clean up any of the substance that spills or leaks out.

  3. If possible, put the package in a plastic bag or other sealable container (but not in water or a confined space, such as a desk drawer or filing cabinet) to keep more substance from leaking out. Otherwise, cover it with a plastic sheet, trash can, spare piece of clothing, paper – anything you can get your hands on. In either case, leave the package where you found it and clear the area around it as much as you can.

  4. Wash your hands with soap and water. Also, if any of your clothes get any of the substance on them, take them off and, if possible, put them in a plastic bag or some other sealable container.

  5. Evacuate everyone else out of the room, and do not let any of them handle the package. If you can, turn off any nearby fans or ventilation systems. Then close all windows and doors on your way out of the room.

  6. If you noticed the package giving off strong odors, visible or strong fumes, smoke, or effects that gave people difficulty breathing or other symptoms of illness, activate the nearest fire alarm.

  7. Notify your supervisor (if applicable) and call 9-1-1. Be sure to describe the situation in which you found the suspicious package, including who else was present. Also inform them that they may need to turn off nearby fans or ventilation systems to keep the contaminant from spreading.

  8. As soon as you can, take a shower with soap and water.

  9. Wait in a safe place with a telephone until emergency responders arrive, and they will advise you on what to do next.

 

Again, this article is not a substitute for official suspicious mail training from your organization or local authorities. It is merely a guideline to give you a general idea of how to detect suspicious packages by hand, and some best practices for if you do discover one. If you want to increase your accuracy in identifying suspicious mail, check out VOTI Detection’s cutting-edge detection equipment!

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