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Jewish World Review Nov. 14, 2001 / 28 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

We're all in this
together -- in the dark -- EIGHT MONTHS pregnant, she spent the weekend confused, upset, and a little angry.

And it didn't help that she wasn't quite sure whom to be angry at.

It was a weekend when the government again cautioned Americans to be vigilant about what arrives in the mail. President Bush recently said:

"Originally, experts believed the anthrax spores could not escape from sealed envelopes. We now know differently." The president said that anthrax in the mail is "a second wave of terrorist attacks," and advised citizens to "take appropriate precautions."

Eight months pregnant, the woman spent the weekend not knowing if she did the right thing.

She lives in rural Michigan, and works as the secretary at a small insurance office. At 38, she is about to become a mother for the first time.

So when a hand-addressed envelope showed up at the bottom of a stack of office mail, she became concerned.

"It was addressed in blue ink in large, uneven, block letters," she said. "It was postmarked the Republic of Togo, and carried a Togo postage stamp. There was no return address. I became alarmed and did not open it."

Now ... you may have received one of these Togo letters, through the mail or by e-mail. They are scams, solicitations to take your money. But she was unfamiliar with such letters -- and was quite familiar with the advice the U.S. government has been giving about strange mail. Deride her for her concern, if that's what you want to do -- but don't denigrate her sincerity. She's about to have a baby, and she reads the news.

"My first instinct was to try to stay calm," she said. "I washed my hands thoroughly with soap and water, then called my boss at home and asked her if she knew anyone in Togo, and of course she said no."

The woman said she called the nearest branch of the Michigan State Police, and was told to bag the letter and they would send someone to pick it up. The police called her back a few minutes later, she said, and told her to call the FBI instead.

She said she called an FBI number the police gave her. A recording told her to call a larger FBI office in Detroit. She did.

She said an FBI employee in Detroit asked her if she had spoken to local law enforcement. She said they had referred her to the FBI. He told her he would call the smaller FBI office near her, and someone would pick up the letter. He told her to triple-bag it. She apologized for her nervousness, explaining she was about to have a baby.

She called her doctor's office, and then the county health department. She was told to wait until the FBI had tested the letter.

The FBI employee in Detroit then called her boss at the insurance company, she said, to say local law enforcement was supposed to deal with suspicious mail first. Then another FBI employee called to tell her to call the local sheriff's and police departments. He told her, she said, that if the letter did not get picked up, she should soak it in bleach or burn it to dispose of it. He also advised her, she said, to find an independent laboratory to analyze it.

She called her county health department again, and was told to call her doctor or go to an emergency room if she felt sick.

She called the local police department, she said, and was told that the letter was probably harmless, and that she should just throw it away; no police would be coming to pick it up.

No one did. She is aware law enforcement is stretched to the limit these days. But she also is aware that the U.S. Postal Service sent notifications asking citizens to report suspicious mail. She knows that even though she was told there was no danger in the letter (by government employees who had never seen it), she also was asked if she had washed her hands after touching it, and was advised to triple-bag it, then bleach or burn it.

She doesn't know if she has done the right thing. She is a little embarrassed about being nervous. She will have her first baby in a month. She understands something:

"I really don't think the government knows any more about all of this than we do," she said. "They're learning on the go."

She's correct. Uncertain days, with all of us, each of us, learning on the go.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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