The Salvation Army thought it had received a grand gift ahead of Christmas – a $25,000 check. But the donation turned out to be an expensive hoax that may force the charity to cut back on winter assistance for the needy.
Investigators said Wednesday that more than a dozen Charleston-area charities received fake checks before Christmas purporting to be gifts from a genuine local company.
None of the other charities cashed theirs, but the Salvation Army deposited its check. It went ahead and spent some of the money on food and toys for about 100 families, counting on the check to clear.
The bank called two days before Christmas to say the check had bounced, and the agency was left with less money than planned to help the needy this cold January.
"It's a matter of counting on that so we would have a cushion," said Kiki Cooper, the director of development for the local chapter. She said the single check represented about 10 percent of what the Salvation Army typically raises during the holiday season.
The check and accompanying letter appeared to come from Force Protection Inc., an armored vehicle manufacturer in Ladson. The letter said the company had enjoyed success and wanted to share with local charities.
Other charities called the company about the unsolicited donations and Force Protection sent out a memo Dec. 17 – the same day the Salvation Army deposited their check – saying it had been the victim of a holiday scam.
Officers were investigating but there had been no arrests in the case as of Wednesday, said Maj. John Clark of the Charleston County Sheriff's Department.
Tommy Pruitt, a spokesman for Force Protection, said the checks were written on a company bank account that had been closed months ago. He said he did not want to speculate on who might be responsible.
Cooper said the check arrived at the busiest time of year for the charity.
"People say why don't you check every check? We have old ladies who send us a dollar and we're talking at this time of year we have anywhere from 500 to 1,000 checks coming in a week," she said.
Cooper said people were already offering to help offset the loss.
"We've actually had a couple of people walking in dropping off $20. We have that at Christmas, never in January," she said.
Nationally, the Salvation Army raises about $500 million each holiday season – about 40 percent of its yearly donations.
Gift checks sometimes bounce or credit card charges get rejected, said Jennifer Byrd, a spokeswoman for the national organization. "But it's so inconsequential in the overall giving we receive."