Explosive Threats in the Mail – What you need to know


FBI Considers Terror Possibility After Pipe Bomb Explodes at Indiana Post OfficeTIME

This Chicago Post Office pipe bomb incident is unfortunately timely with our focus on explosives in the mail. Read on to ensure your business or organization is prepared and stays safe.

Sending a destructive bomb device through the mail is regrettably not a new idea. Long before the Unabomber in 1980-1990s, bombs sent in a parcel date back to the 1700s. Just this past year, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) worker in Paris was injured by a letter bomb, and the former Greek Prime Minister was also wounded by a letter bomb.

We have taken a look at Chemical, Biological and Radiological threats in previous SafeMail Insights. This month, I’ve turned to SoBran's SafeMail threat experts Will Hobbs and Rich Swank to learn more about Explosive threats in the mail.

What is an Explosive Mail Threat?

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) "An improvised explosive device (IED) attack is the use of a “homemade” bomb and/or destructive device to destroy, incapacitate, harass, or distract. IEDs can be carried or delivered in a vehicle; carried, placed, or thrown by a person; delivered in a package or in the mail; or concealed on a roadside." When mailed or delivered through a third party, this threat is most often referred to as a letter bomb, mail bomb or parcel bomb.

The primary focus this month is on explosives and letter bombs. IEDs used for dispersing chemical, radiological, or biological material, also known as “dirty bombs” were covered here.

What is Different About This Threat?

Explosives can come in many forms:

• Crystalline solids (i.e. fertilizer)
• Powders (i.e. ammunition)
• Plastic solids (i.e for demolition and blasting)
• Liquids. (i.e. nitroglycerin for dynamite)

Complicating this is the potential for additional threats within an explosive that is being used to spread another contaminant such as a biological weapon or a chemical. Additionally, dangerous glass, metal fragments or nails are often combined to maximize injury and death for the perpetrator’s deadly goals.

What are the Types of Bomb/Explosive Threats?

However a letter or package may get to your business or your mailroom, there is always a chance for a threat.

• Small Package/Letter
• Parcel Package/Box
• FedEx, UPS or any third party delivery Parcel or Package
• Hand Delivery
• Interoffice Mail/Delivery
• Courier Delivery

What Should We Look for?

Any of these items or a combination can indicate a dangerous package and possibly an explosive:

• Excessive postage
• Sealed with extra tape and material
• Restrictive markings like “Personal” or “Private”
• Lack of return address
• Lopsided or uneven package
• Strange odors, stains or leakage
• Badly typed or written addressing
• Misspelled words
• Return address from foreign country or does not match postmarking

Do We Have the Correct Equipment for Protection?

Only so much can be detected by visual inspection. Further methods to detect bomb threats include:
• ‘Trace detectors’ can identify tiny amounts of some explosives in the air
• X-ray machines can detect metallic elements in a package.
• Dogs trained to sniff out chemical explosives can provide another level of security

According to a government mail safety guide the “critical lesson about mail bombs is that virtually all of them can be detected by skilled x-ray inspection of letters and packages.”

How Can We Ensure Protection?

1. Establish a letter and package screening program designed to fit your organization’s threat as a potential target (terrorist, disgruntled employee, etc)
2. Appoint a mail center security coordinator and an alternate to be responsible for your screening plan and to ensure compliance.
3. Establish lines of communication between the mail center security coordinator, management, and the security office.
4. Screen all mail and packages when they first arrive at your mailroom for sorting.
5. Staff who sort mail by hand should perform the screening, as they are the ones most likely to notice a suspicious item.
6. Prominently display a list of suspicious letter and package indicators in your mailroom and provide a copy of the list to all staff to ensure they’re familiar with it.

Basic steps for Mail Bomb/Explosive Safety include:

1. Put a plan in writing
2. Install correct sensor equipment
3. Train employees
4. Run practice drills

If this is not possible, consider outsourcing mail screening to a third party or sending mail to a third party screening facility.

As always, I appreciate your comments. smartin@sobran-inc.com

Addressing Mailroom Security Complacency


Addressing Mailroom Security ComplacencyTo assess how organizations are protecting themselves from mail terrorism, SoBran, Inc. conducts an annual survey of security and mailroom professionals.

Click here to view the Survey Infographic.

Why Is This Important?
Mail threats can occur at any time, for any type of organization. They may come from terrorist actions, homegrown extremists, or individuals with a grievance against a particular company

Mail screening is an essential part of an overall security plan that includes physical security and cyber security strategies to protect an organization’s staff, assets and reputation. Yet, many security professionals battle complacency in their organizations and haven’t implemented adequate protection from mail threats.

These survey findings reveal how organizations can move from complacency to funding mail screening as a critical component of their overall security plan. Understanding how organizations included in this survey address mail security challenges can help security professionals, facilities managers, mailroom staff, and business leaders shape their own risk management practices.

How Worried Should We Be?
Each year, the FBI and US Postal Service receive thousands of reports of hazardous or threatening mail. High profile or controversial organizations are not the only ones targeted by mail terrorism.

Almost one in three respondents in the SafeMail survey report that over the last year they have received at least one mail threat (including hazardous mail and hoaxes). Thirteen percent received 3 or more threats

What are the Challenges to Mail Security?
When asked to name their biggest challenge, 38% of survey respondents indicated they must constantly work to gain awareness and/or budget for mail security, combating the complacency that can set in when organizations feel “too safe.”

As the results of this survey indicate, even organizations that are aware of the threat of mail terrorism and have taken steps to address it, have gaps in their security strategies which could leave them exposed to an attack

Where Can We Improve?
The primary area for improvement is the screening location. Offsite screening, in which mail is screened in a separate location from where most employees work, is the most effective way to minimize potential harm.

A second opportunity for improvement is a deeper emphasis on training.
Organizations can increase the knowledge of mailroom staff as well as anyone who
handles incoming mail with a variety of training strategies.

Basic steps to Mail Safety Include:
1. Put a plan in writing
2. Install correct equipment
3. Train employees
4. Run practice drills

If this is not possible, consider outsourcing mail screening to a third party or sending mail to a third party screening facility.

As long as terrorists have low cost and easy access to mail, all organizations must consider comprehensive mail screening an essential part of a complete security program. For more information on mail security best practices, SoBran can help.

All this information, and much more is included in the complete survey brief: “Addressing Complacency: Lessons from the 2017 SoBran Mail Security Survey.”


Why Radiological Threats are Attractive to Terrorists


The radiological threat is real and growing according to the April Time Magazine article titled “Inside the Uranium Underworld: Dark Secrets, Dirty Bombs.

"It would change our world," President Obama said of a potential dirty bomb in April 2016. "We cannot be complacent." - TIME INC

"In a sense we've been lucky so far, I honestly think it is only a matter of time before we see one of these dirty-bomb attacks." Sharon Squassoni, Director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – TIME INC.

Last fall, an undercover investigative group demonstrated how simple it was to obtain radiological materials for a dirty bomb – right here in the United States.

This spring, in response to the growing radiological threat, ambulances in our Nation’s Capital were fitted with radiological detection equipment. Larger devices of this sort have been put into operation at our nation’s ports just this past year. The goal here being early detection before the harmful radioactivity can be put to use in any act of terror – whether at a crowded event, on a city block or in the mail of a targeted organization.

What is a Radiological Mail Threat?
The Department of Homeland Security defines a radiological attack as “the spreading of radioactive material with the intent to do harm.” This can include an explosion of some kind and the resulting unprotected exposure to radioactive material. According to the United States Postal Inspection Service, radiological dispersion can be achieved “by combining a radiation source with a conventional explosive to create a ‘dirty bomb’ that can be introduced into the mail stream as a package.”

Why are Radiological Threats be Appealing to Terrorists?
Terrorist use of a Radiological Dispersion Device (RDD) — or “dirty bomb” — is considered far more likely than use of a nuclear explosive device. This appeals to terrorists because the RDDs require less technical knowledge to build and deploy compared to a nuclear device. Furthermore, the radioactive materials in RDDs are widely used in agriculture, medicine, industry and research, and are easier to obtain than weapons grade uranium or plutonium.

What is Different About This Threat?
By itself, radiation is odorless and invisible, and there are few clues about the danger.

However, in some ways, the threat is very much like a bomb (or explosive) threat due to the fact that in order to disperse the radiation, a conventional explosive device (or Radiological Dispersion Device RDD) is needed.

The difference lies in the fact that there is radioactive material being scattered. And therefore, additional detection methods apply here.

Radiological threats by explosion may affect:
• Small, localized areas (e.g., a street, a mail room, a single building, or city block)
• Large areas, up to a few square miles, depending on the nature of the dispersion and the amount and type of radioactive material

What are the Types of Radiological Threats?
Radioactive sources can be solid, aerosol, gas, or liquid.
Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDDs) or ‘Dirty Bombs’ explosion produces radioactive and nonradioactive shrapnel and radioactive dust over a targeted area.

Explosion causes:

  • Radiation contamination, commonly
  • Radiation exposure only in certain circumstances
  • Physical injury
  • Burns
  • Panic, fear

RDDs can also include other means of dispersal, including placement of a container containing radioactive material to disperse powdered or aerosolized forms.

What Should We Look for?
In addition to Signs of Dangerous Mail which can help an organization identify possible dangers, radiological threats will need the help of specialized equipment to detect radiation hidden in a mail package.

There are different types of radioactive materials that emit different kinds of radiation:

Gamma and X-rays can travel long distances in air and can pass through the body exposing internal organs; it is also a concern if gamma emitting material is ingested or inhaled.

Beta radiation can travel a few yards in the air and in sufficient quantities might cause skin damage; beta-emitting material is an internal hazard if ingested or inhaled.

Alpha radiation travels only an inch or two in the air and cannot even penetrate skin; alpha-emitting material is a hazard if it is ingested or inhaled.

Do We Have the Correct Equipment for Protection?
A radiological mail threat can be detected with equipment which measures dose rate such as a Geiger counters. Systems to detect radiation in mail operations are capable of detecting and identifying differing types of radiation particles mentioned above (i.e. alpha, beta, and gama). Other types of instruments are used to identify the radioactive element(s) present.

Organizations can set up their own screening equipment at their own location. When cost of equipment and training is a factor, mail can be screened at a 3rd party offsite screening facility. With these “offsite mail screening” facilities, you have no capital costs and pay a monthly fee that is typically based on the volume of mail screened. (For the record, SoBran operates several of these facilities.)

How Can We Ensure Protection?
Best practices include:

1. Screening inbound delivery vehicles for radiation using pedestal or wall mounted sensors.

2. Integrating radiation sensors into the central security system - monitoring 24/7.

3. Equipping mail center personnel with wearable radiation pagers while screening and processing mail or unloading delivery vehicles in the loading dock area.

Basic steps to Radiological Mail Safety include:

1. Put a plan in writing

2. Install correct sensor equipment

3. Train employees

4. Run practice drills

If this is not possible, consider outsourcing mail screening to a third party or sending mail to a third party screening facility.
Stay vigilant and next time we will cover the threat of explosives and letter bombs. As always, I appreciate your comments. smartin@sobran-inc.com

Chemical Mail Threats – What You Need to Know


Last month we took a look at the biological mail threats. This month I turned to the mail security experts at SoBran to talk about chemical threats.

What is a Chemical Mail Threat?

The Department of Homeland Security defines a chemical attack as “the spreading of toxic chemicals with the intent to do harm.” In the mail, chemical gas, solids or liquid agents are sent to an intended target individual or company. The threat is usually contained while the package or letter is being processed, and then could be released from the act of opening by the recipient, or by a timer or a remote.

What is Different About This Threat?

Since chemical threats are often contained until the delivery is opened, they are difficult to detect. The small size and light weight means they can be deployed using almost any national or local delivery service. This also presents unique challenges for trying to identify their presence in your organization’s mail and deliveries.

Furthermore, with a very modest amount of material, the chemical agent can cause significant and immediate casualties in a building.

What are the Types of Chemical Threats?
A diverse range of chemicals can be formulated, stolen or otherwise procured for use with malicious intent.

These chemical threat agents can be poisonous vapors, aerosols, liquids or solids that are either naturally occurring in the environment or synthetically produced.  General categories include:

  • Nerve agents (i.e. Sarin)
  • Blood agents (i.e. Cyanide)
  • Pulmonary (choking) agents (i.e. Ammonia, Chlorine)
  • Blister agents (i.e. Mustard)
  • Toxic Industrial chemicals (i.e. Chlorine and Phosgene)

What Should We Look for?
Because of the very small quantity of agent needed for a chemical threat, detection is problematic.
In addition to knowing the general Signs of Dangerous Mail - many chemical agents can have a unique odor and color. Be alert for:

• Unexplained odors (smell of bitter almonds, peach kernels, newly mown hay, or green grass)
• Droplets of oily film on surfaces
• Unusual liquid or vapors

Do We Have the Correct Equipment for Detection?
Most organizations employ X-ray screening, but X-rays are effective for visible threats, like explosives. Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats all require specialized equipment and training. Needed screening equipment includes an air sampling chemical sensing system – both automatic and handheld.

Organizations can set up their own screening equipment at their own location. When cost of equipment and training is a factor, mail can be screened at a 3rd party offsite screening facility. With these “offsite mail screening” facilities, you have no capital costs and pay a monthly fee that is typically based on the volume of mail screened. (For the record, SoBran operates several of these facilities.)

How Can We Ensure Protection?
Your mail screening facility should have chemical detection sensors installed in the loading dock area and the mail screening area. These sensors should provide both an audible and visual alarm that can be detected in the immediate area.

You can safeguard your people and your assets against the chemical exposure threat. Advance preparation is essential to assessing and managing a chemical threat that may come in the mail.  As always, early detection and accurate identification are critical to enable effective treatment and to prevent additional exposures of chemical threats.  Every mailroom should have a solid understanding of the chemical threats risk, and a written security plan on how to respond.

Basic steps to Chemical Mail Safety include:

1. Put a plan in writing
2. Install correct sensor equipment
3. Train employees
4. Run practice drills

If this is not possible, consider outsourcing mail screening to a third party or sending mail to a third party screening facility.

Stay vigilant and next time we will cover radiological threats. As always, I appreciate your comments. smartin@sobran-inc.com

Biological Attack by Terrorists Increasingly Likely


“A biological attack by terrorists that could kill up to 30 million people is increasingly likely due to the ease with which pathogens can be created and spread, Bill Gates has warned.”

In light of the latest headlines about the intensified biological threat, we think it is important to understand the threat and how to protect your organization.

What is a Biological Mail Threat?
The Department of Homeland Security defines a biological threat as “the intentional release of a pathogen (disease causing agent) or biotoxin (poisonous substance produced by a living organism) against humans, plants, or animals. An attack against people could be used to cause illness, death, fear, societal disruption, and economic damage.”

The DHS makes a distinction between the two types of biological threats:
• Transmissible agents that spread from person to person (e.g., smallpox, Ebola) or animal to animal (e.g., foot and mouth disease).
• Agents that may cause adverse effects in exposed individuals but that do not make those individuals contagious to others (e.g., anthrax, botulinum toxin).

What is Different About this Threat?
There is an important difference between biological threats and the other types of mail threats. Mail bombs and chemical and radiological attacks are often more easily identified, and typically consequences can and must be managed immediately.

Because of the minuscule size and amount needed of the biological agents, this threat is not as immediately recognizable - which means consequence management could be delayed enabling contamination to travel and spread.

As we learned with the 2001 anthrax letters, large quantities of weaponized spores can be distributed using one envelope. Utilizing a more sophisticated ‘bomb,’ they can also be disbursed through an aerosol method from an enclosed flat envelope or parcel.

What are the Types of Biological Threats?
Bacteria (i.e. Anthrax, Plague and Smallpox)
Viruses (i.e. Smallpox or Ebola)
Biotoxins (i.e. Ricin or Botulism)

See the full CDC list here

What Should We Look For?
Most often fine powder is the only visual clue. However, a dangerous agent like Anthrax is almost imperceptible since so little is needed to spread both fear and sickness.

Furthermore, in many cases the powder is a result of the mail handling process itself. Few individuals realize the level of automation involved in the mail process that causes some substances that are solid when mailed to become powders by the sorting equipment used at postal facilities.
Even though the majority of these type of mail threats turn out to be either the result of mail processing or attempted hoaxes, the threat of bioterrorism is more real now than ever. Each suspicious package or letter has to be treated seriously.

Do We Have the Correct Equipment for Detection?
Most organizations have X-ray screening, but X-rays are primarily used for explosives. Like chemical, radiological and nuclear threats, biological agents require specialized equipment and training.

Organizations can set up their own screening equipment, or can cost-effectively have their mail screened at a 3rd party offsite screening facility. Needed screening equipment includes Bio-collection devices and BioFlash detection air sampling units.

How Can We Ensure Protection?
Effective countermeasures are available against many of the bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Advance preparation is critical to assessing and managing any biological threat that may come in the mail.
Every mailroom should have a solid understanding of possible biological threats, and a written security plan on how to respond. Basic steps to Biological Mail Safety include:

Taking action:
1. Put a plan in writing
2. Install correct equipment
3. Train employees
4. Run practice drills

If this is not possible, consider outsourcing mail screening to experts or sending mail to a third party facility.

Next time we will cover chemical threats. I’d like to hear your comments. smartin@sobran-inc.com

Stay Safe,

Soma K. Martin and your SoBran SafeMail Team


The Opioid Crisis Spotlights Mail Security Deficits


The opioid crisis has highlighted a major security issue for mailrooms nationwide. Packages are pouring in from unknown international sources, and often contain dangerous and illegal substances.

Read more

Security Management Article: Protecting Municipal Warehouses


SecMgmtThe SoBran team authored "In the Public Interest", appearing in Security Management, a publication of ASIS International:

Global shrink costs retailers at least $119 billion a year, and that number continues to grow due to shoplifters and dishonest employees, according to the most recent Global Retail Theft Barometer report. This issue isn’t just confined to the retail industry, though; municipalities with warehouses that service water, sanitation, school, police, fire, and transportation services are losing millions of dollars each year to inventory theft, often at the hands of employees within their own logistics operations.

Municipal facilities typically are not as well supported with the state-of-the-art physical security technologies and advanced inventory and property management systems used by for-profit businesses. Municipalities face numerous issues that compete for a limited budget, and city warehouses and logistics operations are often assumed by city leadership to be running smoothly and don’t receive the security funding they may need.  Read more

5 Steps to Achieving Animal Biosafety Level (ABSL) 3


sobran-5-steps-to-absl-3-infographicLab safety maintains the integrity of your research, keeps employees healthy, and lowers turnover and costs. Many labs make safety a priority, but still struggle with effectively safeguarding their facilities and personnel.

Now we've created a blueprint to guide you: 5 Steps to Achieving ABSL3.

Get the Infographic

Help with Research and Discovery


bioscience_video_ssWatch our video to learn more about how SoBran BioScience can help you with your research. You'll benefit from both onsite support and contract research capabilities:
(1) Seamless extension of your research team

(2) Highest level of quality assurance and animal care

(3) Regulatory Compliance

(4) Managing quarantine, barrier and ABSL 1-3 facilities

Watch the video

Are You at High Risk for Mail Terrorism?


A variety of factors, both internal and external, can help determine the vulnerability of your workplace.


Answering "yes" to any of these questions puts your business in the high risk category:

  • Has your organization appeared in the media?
  • Has your organization been engaged in a lawsuit?
  • Has your organization been threatened with a lawsuit?
  • Has your organization made public statements on sensitive issues?
  • Is your organization a member of an industry whose services, research or products could be the subject of public controversy?
  • Has your organization experienced a recent reorganization or buy-out requiring layoffs?
  • Has an employee made threats to harm the company or any other employee?
  • Has your organization attracted political or potentially controversial attention?
  • Has your organization done business internationally?


If your business is High Risk - view our infographic to see how offsite mail screening can better project your employees and your assets.