Identity fraud and other scams are not quite as common and usually not as damaging as purveyors of scam-prevention software and services make them out to be. However, they still exist and have the potential to seriously hurt a consumer's finances and credit score.
About 30.2 million adults -- or 13.5% of the adult population -- report falling victim to fraud each year, according to the most recent Federal Trade Commission data.
Scamsters have a few key tactics and targets. They prey on the elderly, vulnerable and naive. They present themselves as "official" bank or government representatives in a convincing way. They pull at heart strings with pleas for aid to help victims of natural disasters or war. They guarantee profits from a too-good-to-be-true money-making scheme.
"Con artists are the only criminals that we call artists," says Steve Weisman, a lawyer and author of The Truth About Avoiding Scams. "They can appeal to our impulses and psychological make-ups."
Smart, skeptical consumers can largely isolate themselves from fraud and identity theft by watching out for certain signals and ignoring the fake pitches for help or money-making schemes. Here are some common schemes that victims are falling prey to today:
Don't buy bogus weight-loss products that promise to burn fat without effort.
Americans spend about $30 billion each year on weight-loss products and services, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Many fall victim to claims that a miracle pill or potion can help them "Melt Off 10 Pounds in 7 Days!" or "Shed the Fat Without the Diet!"
Those products are a huge waste of money and won't work as advertised. More people -- about 4.8 million -- were victims of fraudulent weight-loss products than any of the other frauds covered by the FTC survey.
"Any claims that you can lose weight effortlessly are false," says the FDA's Web site. "The only proven way to lose weight is either to reduce the number of calories you eat or to increase the number of calories you burn off through exercise."
Another prevalent scam involves email messages advising consumers that they have won a foreign lottery and requesting account information to deposit the reward.
"It's hard enough to win a lottery when you do enter it, much less one you never entered," says Weisman.
Fraudulent foreign lottery offers tied with buyers' club memberships are at second place for the top scams in the FTC survey, with about 3.2 million people getting duped by each type of scheme.
Never give your personal information to anyone claiming that you have won a prize. If you're afraid of losing out on the reward, tell them to send you a check.
"Official" Emails From Banks or the Government
Weisman notes that crooks have also gotten better at making emails look "official" when they pose as government representatives, banks or other outlets.
For instance, after tax day, lots of messages are sent out by imposters who request personal information, claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service. The emails can appear to have official letterheads, emblems and signatures, but are simply fraudulent mock-ups. Thieves also target older victims by pretending to be a representative from the Social Security administration.
Any email, phone message or mailing that requests account information should be independently verified by calling the bank or agency directly. Be sure to scout out the outlet's contact information separately -- don't just call a phone number presented by the potential thief.
Scamsters will look for any opportunity to "take advantage of whatever the event of the moment is," says Weisman. That includes scamming disaster victims by pretending to be FEMA workers, insurance adjusters or contractors or scamming generous donors by posing as a charity representative.
Others present themselves as Red Cross workers to military families and say a relative has been injured in Iraq and is being airlifted to Germany for treatment. The con artist then asks for additional information about the relative serving in the military -- like their date of birth or Social Security number -- as well as a donation to the Red Cross to help cover the cost of the air lift and medical care.
There are still others who claim to have technology to improve gasoline efficiency. They peddle the fake products to consumers struggling with high gas prices and convince others to invest in their company and take off with their cash.
Those suffering from mortgage woes must also be wary, since many scamsters are taking advantage of the subprime crisis by claiming to have a quick fix or cheap solution. Instead, the thief charges processing fees without helping the borrower or convinces the borrower to sign over a home or open a home-equity loan, Weisman says.
"When someone is behind on their mortgage and is going to lose their house and someone comes up to them and says, 'I can help you out with your troubles,' they want to believe," he adds. "It's the old 'desperate times calls for desperate measures.'"
Be wary of those claiming to be representatives of charities or who offer a quick fix for a complicated situation. Donate directly through a trusted method instead of someone who contacts you via phone or email. If a product -- like the gasoline device or mortgage solution -- seems too good to be true, it probably is.