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Preparedness Spotlight: Identifying Suspicious Packages


Credit: iStock

As the old saying goes — if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. But can the duck test work on everything?

Take — for example — the case of a suspicious package. If you receive mail from an unknown sender, should you take it for what it is — just a package — or question its contents? CEPAR recommends thinking twice about what could be inside.

In October, a suspect mailed several suspicious packages intended for former President Barack Obama, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and other political officials. Authorities intercepted the packages, some of which contained potentially explosive devices, and the suspect was arrested.

In response to these events — though there was no known threat to Johns Hopkins — the Office of the Vice President for Security sent out an email to Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine faculty and staff to encourage them to look out for suspicious items when handling mail at work.

“If you receive a package, box or letter from a source that is unfamiliar or unexpected, or if the item concerns you in some way, do not open or handle it,” the security team noted in the email. 

Here are some potential red flags to look out for on envelopes or packages:

  • Wording such as “personal” or “private” — this is especially important if you do not normally receive personal mail at the office
  • An addressee’s name or title that is inaccurate
  • Handwriting that is distorted, or a name and address that might have been prepared with homemade labels or cut-and-paste lettering
  • Protruding wires, aluminum foil, visible oil stains or a peculiar odor
  • An excessive amount of postage
  • A package or envelope that feels rigid, or appears uneven or lopsided
  • A package that is carelessly wrapped with several combinations of tape to secure it
  • Instructions such as “Fragile — Handle with Care” or “Rush — Do Not Delay” 
  • An item with an irregular shape, soft spots or bulges
  • A buzzing or ticking noise, or a sloshing sound
  • Pressure or resistance when removing the contents

If you find a suspicious package or letter, be sure to call 911 or contact your Johns Hopkins campus security department. It’s important to also remember the following:

  • Do not move, alter, open, examine or disturb the item.
  • Do not put the item in water or a confined space such as a desk drawer or filing cabinet.
  • Open windows in the immediate area, if possible, to assist in venting potentially explosive gasses.
  • Isolate the suspicious article and clear the immediate area until the police arrive.