Unexpected and Unwanted Things in Your Mail

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You probably remember that almost immediately after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, ordinary citizens and state and federal government officials began receiving letters containing anthrax in the form of a powdery substance. The letters were sent though the US Postal Service (USPS). Dozens of other letters were found waiting for delivery in various post offices across the nation.

To this day, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) continues investigating this and other incidents.

Other incidents? The US mail system is still being used to deliver suspicious powders, as well as other illegal activities.

Dateline: 2010

In early January 2010, almost nine years after 9/11 and the anthrax scare, letters showed up in the mail delivered to federal government officials and politicians in several cities across Alabama. The letters contained a powdery substance. Presuming anthrax or some other biological agent or poison, emergency procedures were set in motion, such as evacuations of affected buildings.

The FBI is investigating the matter still, but it's been confirmed that the powder isn't anthrax or any other hazardous material.

Unfortunately, the Alabama incident is the latest in a long string of post-9/11 incidents. In many cases, like the one in Alabama, the powdery substance isn't harmful. Rather, the letters were meant to scare or terrorize the recipients but not actually harm them. Other letters over the years, however, have been laced with biological toxins.

The Law

Under US law, it's illegal to mail hazardous or injurious materials like anthrax. The Post Office has a Dangerous Mail Investigations program to prevent misuse of the mail and investigate incidents such as the recent Alabama scare. The USPS also has a publication explaining what can and can't be sent through the mail. There are mailing restrictions on things, like chemicals, perishable food, and alcohol.

In addition, anyone who sends anthrax or other toxins and poisons through the US mail may face criminal charges of terrorism or use of a weapon of mass destruction. If officers, agents, or employees of the federal government are the recipients of such letters, he may face other federal criminal charges as well.

Sending a threatening letter is a crime, too. As in the Alabama incident, while the letters don't contain anthrax, they threatened the recipients, according to investigators. Whether you call it a hoax, joke, or a bluff, it's a crime.

Private Carriers

Private carriers like UPS and FedEx handle all sorts of mail and packages. Do the laws apply to them? Generally, private carriers can't be used to get around laws originally written for the USPS.

There haven't been any reports about anthrax or biological agents being sent through these carriers. That's probably because users generally have to fill out shipping forms, which could be used to track down the person mailing mailing the harmful items. While anyone can slap a 44 cent stamp on letter and drop it anonymously into any one of millions of USPS mailboxes across the nation, it's not so easy to mail a letter or package through private carriers.

Nonetheless, it's very likely that anyone who did use a private carrier to mail a letter or package containing anthrax or a bomb would still be charged with committing an act of terrorism.

What To Do

First, learn to identify suspicious mail. Look for:

  • Any powdery substance on the outside of the letter or package, or emits an odd smell or odor
  • Whether it's from someone you know or do business with
  • Excessive postage, poorly handwritten address, misspellings, and whether there's a return address
  • Unusual bumps or lumps in the envelope
  • Whether it's too heavy or too light for its size
  • Is marked or stamped as "Confidential" or "Personal"

If you receive a suspicious letter or package:

  • Don't open it. Put it somewhere away from you and your family or co-workers and call 911 immediately
  • Don't jostle it, smell it, or handle it for too long, and don’t pass it along to friends and neighbors to look at
  • If you open it and find suspicious powder, call 911 and seek medical assistance. Wash you hands immediately, and if possible, remove any clothing that may have come into contact with the item
  • Record the names of everyone who came into contact with letter or package

Mail Fraud

Mail Fraud is another good example. This is when the mail is used as part of scheme to defraud or cheat someone, typically money. A good example is when a victim orders something through a mail-order catalog, or even online, and pays for it, but the item’s never sent. Private carriers like UPS and FedEx are subject by mail fraud laws.

Likewise, sending a threatening letter with a private carrier results in criminal charges, as if the letter had been sent through the US mail.

If you think you've been the victim of another mail-related crime, like mail fraud, file a complaint with the USPS and with your state attorney general's office.

Everyone gets and sends mail. It's our responsibility to use the mail system properly, and to keep an eye out for letters or packages that may harm you or others, whether it be physically or financially.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Someone used my return address on a suspicious letter sent to a local politician and the police are charging me with a crime. Can you help me?
  • Doesn't the US Postal Service screen mail for dangerous materials? Can the Post Office be held liable if I or member of my family are poisoned or hurt by a piece of dangerous mail?
  • I have some information about an investigation being conducted by the FBI and Post Office. Can I give the tip anonymously? How can I claim the reward?
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