A lost wallet, when it falls into the wrong hands, can be disastrous. That was the case for a friend of mine who, in a moment of preoccupation and haste, dropped her purse while on her way to work.

My friend canceled her credit cards, but she failed to cancel an unendorsed payroll check that was in her billfold. It would have taken some time for her employer to cut a new check, and she hoped that an honest person would return the wallet to her.

Within hours, however, the woman who did find the wallet mangled the driver's license it contained and showed up at a motor vehicles office, requesting a new one. The crook walked out with a new identity, went to a check-cashing office in the city and left with two weeks of my friend's pay.

Unfortunately, the mischief had only begun. My friend had forgotten about the video membership card in her wallet, but remembered when the video store telephoned to ask about unreturned tapes that had been checked out in her name. Angry notices for unpaid bills also arrived, including a few from collection agencies. The whole mess wound up in the temporary destruction of my friends's credit rating.

That story was on my mind when I realized one Wednesday that I had lost my wallet. With a sinking feeling, I remembered that the wallet contained not one, not two, but three endorsed checks -- two from a friend repaying loans plus my payroll check.

I quickly called my friend and had her stop payment on her checks to me. Luckily, my credit cards were safe in my other wallet, but I would have had to replace my driver's license, Social Security card, and I was about to cancel my payroll check. But these time consuming efforts weren't necessary. Thankfully there are still some honest people in this world, even during hard economic times, and one of them, Joseph Winbush, found my wallet.

Winbush, who was directing traffic while colleagues with the B. Frank Joy contracting firm installed a new manhole cover on 15th Street across from The Post, saw the wallet on the pavement. He looked inside, saw The Post press pass and the endorsed checks and promptly walked into The Post building.

"I knew it was important to get this taken care of real fast," he said. "There was a lot of money on those checks."

Winbush, 34, who lives in Capitol Heights, Md., was so careful that he refused to leave the wallet and its contents with anyone. He called from The Post lobby, leaving a message on my voice mail saying he would be on the street at work until 4 p.m. and a telephone number at which he could be reached after that.

"I wanted to make sure that it got into the right hands," he said.

I told Winbush that he could have easily cashed those checks and walked away with $1,123.67. "That never even crossed my mind. I don't think that way," he said.

These are unsettled times for Winbush, who has served his country for several years as a member of the Maryland National Guard. Friends in other Guard and reserve units are already serving with U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, and his unit is on alert.

He wants to put his military training as an electronic communications specialist to use in a better paying job, but the search has been difficult.

If personal integrity is high on the list for prospective employers, I can personally attest to Winbush's. At the very least, his bosses at B. Frank Joy will know that they have an honest and thoughtful employee on their payroll. -- Ronald D. White is a member of the editorial page staff.