When it comes to consumer fraud in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has some good news and bad news. The good: fraud appears to be declining. In 2015, fraudsters collected less than the $1.7 billion scammed in 2014. The bad: in 2015, fraud still cost American consumers more than $765 million, with victims paying an average of about $1,100.

Although fraudsters are constantly revising their scams to collect more from consumers, some things remain consistent. Fraudsters almost always seek money – either directly or indirectly – by stealing your personal information. The FTC reports that 75 percent of scams start through phone contact, followed by 8 percent through email. Fraudsters also tend to plan scams that capitalize on your emotions—from empathy to fear.

Trevor Buxton, a fraud awareness and communications manager and Certified Fraud Examiner with PNC Bank, says anyone can be vulnerable to a scam if the scammer catches him or her at the right moment. “A good rule of thumb is that if an offer sounds too good to be true, then it could be a scam.”

To protect yourself, the best defense is a good offense. Learning the characteristics of some of the most common scams can help you identify one before it's too late.

Know your Scams

Debt Relief Scams – Scammers know that if you have debt, you want to get rid of it. They can take advantage of that desire by offering their “services” to reduce or eliminate your balance, interest rates or fees.

  • Warning signs – Describes a “new government program” to bail you out of debt, requires payment before helping you, guarantees to make your debt disappear, advises you to ignore your creditors.
  • What to do – If you’re having trouble making payments on your debt, contact any lenders you owe to discuss repayment options.

Phantom Debt Scams – You know you don’t owe any debts, but receive phone calls or official-looking letters claiming you face consequences if you don’t pay.

  • Warning signs – “Officials” make threats, demand that you wire money or load it to a reloadable money card, or provide phony contact information for the judge, government agency or office they claim to represent.
  • What to do – Ask for a written validation notice with details of the alleged debt, including creditor, amount and your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Do not provide any personal information. Contact the creditor directly to verify whether the claim of debt owed is legitimate.

Charity Scams – Scammers take advantage of your desire to help others and promise your donation will benefit a charity or victims of a natural disaster, but instead they keep it for themselves.

  • Warning signs – Pressures you to donate immediately, requests cash instead of a check or credit card, name does not match that of an established charity organization.
  • What to do – Ask for detailed information about the organization and do not share personal information until you have researched the charity. Check with the Better Business Bureau, GuideStar.org or Charity Watch to verify that the charity is legitimate

IRS Tax Scams – Scammers impersonate the IRS to ask for your personal financial information, then steal money and your identity.

  • Warning signs – Contact via email, text message or social media requesting personal information. Demands immediate payment in the form of money orders, prepaid debit cards or reloadable gift cards over the phone, threatens lawsuits or imprisonment.
  • What to do – Do not click on any links. Forward emails to phishing@irs.gov or call the IRS at 800-829-1040.

Lottery Scams – Scammers say you have won prize money and simply need to pay taxes and fees up-front, usually wired to a foreign country.

  • Warning Signs – You didn’t purchase a lottery ticket and the offer seems too good to be true.
  • What to do – Never send money or share personal information on the phone or Internet with anyone you do not know personally.

In addition to the precautions above, Buxton adds that a good way to protect yourself is to learn how different companies or government agencies communicate with you. For example, government agencies typically contact you through the United States Postal Service, so a phone call should put you on alert. Another safety measure is to not answer calls from numbers you do not recognize. “Answering a spam phone call signals to the scammer that there is a human being – and a potential fraud target – tied to your phone number,” he said. “The best defense is to simply let it ring.”

If you suspect a scam or believe you are the victim of any of the above scams, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.