Salvation Army volunteerWhen a $25,000 check turned up in the mail at a Charleston, S.C., Salvation Army office last month, the staff did what seemed rational: deposited it and spent the money on toys and food for about 100 families.
But when the check -- purportedly from Force Protection Inc. -- turned out to be a hoax and bounced, the office was left in a financial bind, possibly unable to meet its financial obligations.

Since then, the community has rallied with donations to help the Salvation Army office, but the lesson for everyone involved is clear: never, ever, ever count on money until the check has cleared. It'll be fine 99% of the time, but it's not worth running the risk of an overdraft/being broke if there are insufficient funds -- or simply some kind of processing error.

Banks wait for checks to clear before they make all the funds available in the payee's account -- and consumers should follow the same principle.

Because unlike the Salvation Army, you probably don't have a community of well-wishers ready to jump to your aid.

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