Turned out prettily in their green and brown uniforms, thousands of Girl Scouts and Brownies are taking to the Maryland streets this week to deliver their Girl Scout cookies. They will smile sweetly, greet you graciously and demand cash on the barrelhead.
Cookie sales are intended to teach youngsters the rudiments of business, marketing and public relations. Now the scouts are learning about deadbeats as well.
Stuck with nearly $24,000 in bounced checks from its cookie sales last year, the Girl Scout Council of Central Maryland instructed its troops not to accept personal checks during this fall's sales.
Apparently some Girl Scout cookie customers never took the Girl Scout pledge of honesty and good works.
"I guess Girl Scouts are just an easy mark," said Suzie Weiss, a Columbia troop leader. "Our girls don't ask to see IDs or credit cards or driver's licenses. They just trust that the money's good."
Not any more. Bad checks and money never forwarded from individual troops cost the Central Maryland council about $40,000 last year.
"That's an awful lot of beanies, an awful lot of [Girl Scout] handbooks," Sandy McLhinney, director of public relations for the council, said yesterday.
Actually, the bad checks accounted for only a fraction of the total amount of cookie sales last year. The 23,000 Girl Scouts in Central Maryland took orders for 1,245,000 boxes of Thin Mints, Trefoils and Samoas, worth about $2.8 million.
Cookie sales are the primary fund-raising activity in Girl Scouts and make up for more than half of the Central Maryland council's annual budget.
"At the council, we're custodians of the money and use it for the best interests of the girls," Ms. McLhinney said. "We just did not feel it was in the best interest of the girls to have a goodly deficit at the end of the sales."
Several troop leaders fretted about the council's decision, which created the prospects of young girls carrying around large amounts of cash while making their deliveries. Susan Donkar, a Rodgers Forge troop leader with two young daughters in Girl Scouts, said she would no longer allow them to collect money without her. "They would just be too easy targets," she said.
Ms. McLhinney said she did not know how many bounced checks the council received last year. However, she said, since most customers buy no more than two or three boxes, which last year cost $2.25 apiece, most of the checks were for small amounts. Although she said the council turned the bounced checks over to a collection agency, almost none of the money has been recovered.
Deborah Mason, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of the USA in New York City, said yesterday that other councils from around the nation have reported similar problems with bad checks, although no one keeps a national tally of the losses.
Yesterday, spokeswomen for councils in Washington and Los Angeles said their problems with bad checks are negligible and they still accept checks. A spokeswoman in Philadelphia said the council there has had a long-standing policy of refusing checks.
Oddly enough, the Boy Scouts of Central Maryland, which raises money in popcorn sales, said it has had no problem with bad checks. "Bounced checks for popcorn sales is just not that prevalent," said Harry Colson, a spokesman.
Relentlessly positive in outlook -- being cheerful is also a scout commandment -- Girl Scout troop leaders theorized yesterday that the bad checks were less a reflection of bad faith than bad economic times.
"I guess people's eyes are just bigger than their appetites, or at least their pocketbooks," said Elva Hazlehurst, who oversees troops along York Road in Baltimore County.
Others were also unwilling to interpret the passing of bad checks to Girl Scouts as a sign of the moral demise of civilization.
"Girl Scouts are still sacred," said Patricia Mitchell, a troop leader in East Baltimore. "It's just that the checks aren't."