Too good to be true

Scams have been around for all of recorded history. Elaborate schemes intended to bilk as many gullible targets as possible once took time and patience and usually relied on forms of communication that could take days or even weeks.

Then came the telephone. Scammers quickly adopted the phone as a tool of the trade. Now unsuspecting marks were lured with instant promises of instant riches.

And, of course, countless individuals took the bait.

With computerized communication by Internet these days, scams have become more and more complicated -- and more and more difficult to avoid.

When a bank isn't a bank

When an e-mail arrives from your bank asking you to verify your account information so the bank's fraud division can catch a crook, many bank customers pitch right in to help. Except the "bank" isn't your bank at all. This make-believe "bank" -- which exists only on some untraceable Web site -- is the crook.

A recent scam has touched several residents of Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois. These potential victims have received what looked like real checks and letters informing them they have won thousands of dollars in a lottery. The first tipoff, of course, is that none of the letter recipients entered the lottery. But thousands and thousands of dollars can have a strange effect on ordinary folks who wonder -- just as the scammers hoped they would -- if this windfall is too good to be true.

Of course it is.

Telltale signs of instant riches

That's the sign of a scam that everyone ought to recognize. If someone tells you you're about to get rich and it'll only cost you a few thousands dollars to collect, you're being scammed.

If someone asks for account numbers at your bank or credit-card company, hang up the phone and call the police. If it turns out the request is legitimate, any bank or credit-card company won't mind your super-cautious reaction.

It's getting tougher and tougher to recognize a good scam, because the scammers are getting smarter and are using the same tools used by thousands of legitimate businesses.

Just remember: If it looks like a scam and talks like a scam and walks likes a scam, it's no instant fortune.