E-mail a savior amid anthrax scare

Use of e-mail could skyrocket as an ever-widening anthrax investigation turns "snail mail" into a suspicious and potentially lethal form of communication.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
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Paul Festa
7 min read
Use of e-mail could skyrocket as an ever-widening anthrax investigation turns "snail mail" into a suspicious and potentially lethal form of communication.

From corporate America to Congress, executives and regulators concerned about the growing number of letters infected with the deadly bacterium are urging people to communicate through e-mail instead of sending letters through the U.S. Postal Service.

On Tuesday, the Arizona Daily Star announced that the Tucson newspaper would no longer accept regular postal mail addressed to "Letters to the Editor" and other popular feedback forums. Instead, editor and publisher Jane Amari told readers, the paper is asking people to send all correspondence by e-mail, fax or through an online calendar.

"We realize that this policy will inconvenience some readers," Amari wrote in a bulletin. "But it seems a reasonable way to give employees who handle our mail a little more peace of mind."

Today more than half of all Americans use e-mail, for an average of a half-hour each day, according to a recent report by Forrester Research. Another research company, Jupiter Media Metrix, predicts that by 2006, 140 million Americans will be "active" e-mail users, up from 87 million this year.

The newspaper isn't the only organization on heightened alert regarding mailroom workers and letter recipients. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) sent an e-mail to members Monday urging the $528 billion direct-mail industry to send e-mail in conjunction with mass mailing campaigns.

Several years ago, direct mailers began sending e-mail in tandem with letter drops as a way to target its most prized consumers and increase response rates. But a director for the trade organization said Tuesday that the trend is likely to accelerate in wake of the anthrax scare. For instance, he said, marketers wishing to send consumers envelopes containing coupons or sale notifications should also send e-mail to warn consumers that such offers are about to hit their doorstep.

"This is not something that we just thought up Tuesday," said Lou Mastria, director of public and international affairs for the New York-based DMA, the oldest and largest trade association for users and suppliers in the direct, database and interactive marketing fields. "This is a practice that's been developing for some time...It increases response rates normally, but it's particularly effective in this kind of environment, when people are concerned about their mail.

"If people can be reassured and think, 'Hey, this is a legitimate company taking time to send me an e-mail about something that's coming in the mail,' then I'm a little less leery about opening the envelope."

Companies specializing in e-mail marketing are receiving more requests from clients--ranging from catalog retailers to travel agencies--to bolster or replace traditional mailings with e-mail because of the anthrax scare. Janine Popick, CEO of San Francisco-based e-mail marketing firm VerticalResponse, is betting that new customers will continue using e-mail after the threat subsides--simply because it's relatively inexpensive, effective target marketing.

"What we're going to see in the near term is a stall in the mail because everyone's freaked out. That may last a month," said Popick, whose company can send hundreds of thousands of e-mails for less than a penny each. "After that, we're still going to see more people...using e-mail as a channel for sales, along with other channels. They may use e-mail to announce a sale that's coming up. They may use it to hype a Web site or a store."

Congress is also urging constituents to communicate with politicians via e-mail instead of regular mail. On Monday, a piece of mail sent to the office of Sen. Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, tested positive for anthrax.

His office was immediately quarantined, and office workers were instructed to stop opening mail. Later Monday, Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., told CNN that Congress is asking constituents to communicate with their senators or representatives through electronic means.

"We have in our office stopped opening mail, but people can still...communicate with their senator or congressman by e-mail or by phone," Cleland said on CNN.

Anthrax fears spread
America's fears about anthrax-contaminated mail began Oct. 4, when officials in Boca Raton, Fla., announced that American Media Photo Editor Robert Stevens inhaled a form of anthrax. Stevens died a day later.

Coping with the mail

On Tuesday, the Direct Market Association sent e-mail to members with tips on how the $528 billion direct-mail sector should deal with the anthrax scare. Here are some of the recommendations:

 Avoid using plain envelopes. Printed envelopes, especially those using color, are less likely to appear like the hand-prepared envelopes involved in the incidents so far.

 Use a clear and identifiable return address. Consider including your company logo in the address.

 Consider including a toll-free phone number and/or URL address on envelopes.

 Utilize an e-mail and/or telemarketing campaign in conjunction with a letter drop to notify consumers that mail will be coming.

 Consider temporarily delaying business-to-business mailings because of potential logjams in receiving mailrooms.

 Consider performing a security audit throughout your operation.

 Reinforce your existing internal guidelines about forwarding press and consumer calls to appropriate internal channels.

 Educate mailroom employees about identifying and dealing with possible threats.

Other information sources regarding the U.S. mail and anthrax include:

 U.S. Postal Service updates
 Postal Inspection Service
 Center for Disease Control
 Federal Bureau of Investigation consumer advisory

Source: DMA

Over the next two weeks, numerous letters containing spores of anthrax--an infectious, often fatal disease that can be transmitted from cattle and sheep to humans through inhalation or skin lesions--arrived at NBC Nightly News, ABC News, Microsoft and Daschle's Washington office.

Although investigators originally believed that the American Media letter was an isolated incident, they have since begun to speculate whether the letters are part of a larger bioterrorism campaign, possibly linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. The Afghanistan-based organization and its Saudi-born leader are considered prime suspects behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

On Monday, President Bush emphasized that he had "no hard data yet" linking the anthrax exposures and bin Laden. But he quickly noted that bin Laden "is an evil man" and that "he and his spokesmen are openly bragging about how they hope to inflict more pain on our country."

"I wouldn't put it past him, but we don't have any hard evidence," Bush said to a group of reporters in Washington.

The anthrax threats are likely to slow the delivery of regular mail--at least to certain organizations.

The DMA, in its e-mail to mailers, urged companies to postpone business-to-business mail to corporations because of expected backlogs in mailrooms caused by increased security. Senate Sergeant at Arms Alfonso Lenhardt unveiled new procedures last week so that the Senate could check all incoming mail "for potentially harmful agents," according to a memo Lenhardt wrote. The new procedures come on top of X-ray machines that have long been in place.

The letter to Daschle--and at least a dozen suspicious letters to congressional offices that have not yet been tested--prompted a halt of all mail deliveries in the Capitol this week.

"Even though all mail is undergoing additional security screening, please pay attention to all mail delivered to your office, particularly heavily taped mail," Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, a House Democratic leader, wrote in an e-mail to Congress members.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, also said Monday that his aides received a suspicious letter. When the aides reported the letter to investigators, Murkowski said, Capitol police told them that their report was the 12th of the day.

In Trenton, N.J., postal inspector Tony Esposito confirmed that the letter to Daschle was postmarked in Trenton on Sept. 18--the same date and postmark on a letter that infected an NBC employee in New York. Other suspicious letters, including those that have not been confirmed as testing positive, have been postmarked from Malaysia, Florida and other states.

Giving in to terrorists?
The scare was enough to prompt a major change at the Tucson newspaper, where editors said they tried to balance the concerns of mailroom and other workers with readers' ability to communicate. Many letters that have tested positive for anthrax were sent to media organizations, including American Media, which publishes supermarket tabloids, and TV networks NBC and ABC.

Bobbie Jo Buel, the Arizona Daily Star's managing editor, noted that at least 60 percent of all reader submissions already come electronically, either by fax or e-mail. She hoped that the new policy wouldn't crimp readers' ability to communicate with staffers.

"You feel like you're giving in to terrorists if you change the way you do things dramatically, but you have to also think about your employees and protecting them. We have a lot of employees who handle the mail," Buel said Tuesday. "I don't think anyone's going to send us anthrax, but when you work on the media, you know that all sorts of crazy and deranged people are sending you things all the time."

The scare is another blow to the U.S. Postal Service, which has been battling a worrying decline in first-class mail deliveries because of the Internet, e-mail and electronic bill payment services. First-class mail accounted for about $31 billion in the agency's revenues in 1999, a figure that is expected to be cut by more than half by 2003, according to the General Accounting Office.

The Postal Service delivers 680 million pieces a day, totaling 208 billion pieces of mail a year, Postmaster General John E. Potter said Monday.

Peter Neumann, principal scientist at SRI International Computer Science Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., agreed that e-mail was a convenient, safe way to communicate in case of a broader bioterrorist threat. But he hoped that people wouldn't become paranoid about regular mail and would continue to look for new threats.

"You have to remember that we tend to respond so narrowly just to the threat of the day," Neumann said. "For a while it was airliners used as cruise missiles. Then it was realized that civil aviation was also riskful. Then anthrax. There are many other modalities that have not yet come into play but that we need to be aware of and on guard."