Late last summer, Ann Lauritsen suspected something fishy might be going on after both she and her mother sent greeting cards to her daughter at Boston University that never arrived. A high school math teacher, she went looking for answers and soon decided she had to take matters into her own hands.
“It didn’t seem like anyone was doing anything to solve the problem,” said Lauritsen, of Long Island, N.Y.
The missing mail had prompted her to log on to a parents’ Facebook group that opened her eyes to a widespread problem. There were dozens of posts from parents complaining that letters they had sent to their children’s dorms had also disappeared.
Lauritsen filed a report with the Postal Service and sent a letter to the school about the issue, but she wasn’t convinced either was serious about investigating. So she decided to do it herself.
She posted a message on the Facebook group asking parents to send a card to their son or daughter — with no cash or gift cards enclosed — and report back to her in a few weeks on whether it was received. Lauritsen instructed the parents to drop off the cards at the post office to avoid the possibility of theft from sidewalk collection boxes.
She even came up with a catchy name to promote her effort.
“2022 BOSTON UNIVERSITY GREAT GREETING CARD MAIL EXPERIMENT!!!!” she wrote at the top of her Facebook post in early January.
Some 35 parents agreed. They were from a diverse array of states, and their children lived in an assortment of BU dorms.
Lauritsen carefully logged the responses into a spreadsheet. The results were striking: Out of the 44 cards that were sent over a two week period in January, 18 never arrived (40 percent).
“Someone is stealing the mail. There is no doubt in my mind,” Lauritsen said. “I just don’t know how to get people sincerely interested in this.”
Mail theft has spiked in several parts of the U.S. in recent years. While reports of large-scale mail thefts on college campuses are rare, experts say they make for prime targets.
“What’s the classic stereotype — the broke college student,” said Joshua Shandler, a retired postal inspector. “Birthday cards, gift cards, cash — you have to figure they get a high percentage of that kind of stuff.”
“From a criminal standpoint,” Shandler added, “it’s a good racket.”
Boston University is not the only college to face an epidemic of mail theft.
In March 2021, a postal worker in Pennsylvania confessed to stealing mail intended for Penn State University students. The employee admitted to taking letters and greeting cards addressed to students while sorting mail at the post office, according to federal prosecutors. The investigation was launched in early 2018 after a worker at a local landfill found 95 pieces of discarded mail.
Retired postal inspectors told NBC News that the pool of potential suspects in the Boston University case — postal workers and campus mailroom employees — would be relatively small.
The postal system now relies on machines to do the bulk of mail sorting in its facilities. That means a piece of mail sent from California to Massachusetts, for instance, may be handled by only a few humans before it arrives at its destination.
Postal facilities are outfitted with surveillance cameras and other security measures. But a university mailroom likely has few such safeguards, the former inspectors said.
“Are they running the most state-of-the-art surveillance system, or any surveillance system? Probably not,” Shandler said.
The retired postal inspectors said they were struck by Lauritsen’s tenacity and ingenuity, noting that she used classic investigative techniques to produce solid evidence that a thief was at work.
“She’s already done the initial investigative steps,” Shandler said. “From a law enforcement perspective, she’s a dream victim.”
Yet four months after she first reported the problem, Lauritsen said she still hasn’t heard from anyone with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. She also doesn't understand why Boston University hasn't informed parents and students about the issue.
“I’m not going to go away,” she said. “I’m like a dog with a bone.”
Jessica Adams, a spokeswoman for the Postal Inspection Service, provided a brief statement.
“Postal Inspectors are aware of this situation and are working with Boston University officials,” Adams said. “At this time, we cannot discuss details of the investigation. We do encourage anyone that is a victim of mail theft to report at 1-877-876-2455.”
Boston University spokesman Colin Riley said its police department has “an open investigation and is working with the U.S. Postal Service.”
Multiple parents said packages haven’t been going missing — only letters, especially those that contain gift or greeting cards.
One of the parents who participated in Lauritsen’s experiment, Kim Vegliante, sent three pieces of mail on the same day in January: two Hallmark-type cards and one business envelope with nothing inside. Her daughter received only one of them: the empty envelope.
“It’s definitely a sad situation when you can’t send your kid in college a card to let them know you are thinking of them,” said Vegliante, who lives in Connecticut. “I’m so glad Venmo was invented as that is what I use now to send my kids money.”
Another parent who participated, Gena Rieck, had already been burned once before.
Rieck said she and other family members sent five birthday cards to her daughter, a Boston University freshman, in late August. Her daughter received only two; they contained no cash or gift cards. Two others that included $200 gift cards never arrived. Nor did a fifth, which contained no cash or cards.
“That was an expensive lesson,” said Rieck, of Colorado.
When Rieck saw Lauritsen’s post about the mail experiment, she not only decided to participate. She saw it as an opportunity to turn the tables on the thief.
Rieck stapled together several of her business cards and placed them inside a greeting card to give the impression it contained a gift card or cash. Before she sent off the card, she scrawled a message to the suspected thief: “Surprise! Not for you today!”
As expected, her daughter never received the card. But Rieck felt a measure of satisfaction knowing she likely got the best of the bandit.
“We just knew she wouldn’t get it,” Rieck said. “We wanted the culprit to know we were on to him.”
Lauritsen said she has reached out to BU officials at least nine times in the last six months to press them on the status of the investigation. She’s now thinking about enlisting parents for a second experiment that would involve sending letters to students in off-campus housing.
“That would help determine if they’re being stolen at the university level,” she said.
“My only goal is to get this resolved,” she added. “I don’t want the students and the parents to be victimized over and over again.”