With all the clever advertising these days, it's getting harder to distinguish between honest marketers and frauds.

Thanks to the Internet, the schemers have been busier than ever. It's especially difficult when the perpetrators hide behind official looking logos or with appealing notices like "You have won!" or that "there's an official check in the mail awaiting you."

The scammers who pretend to work for an actual lottery organization are especially deceptive. One tactic is to say you need to pay an "advance fee" or make a special additional purchase in order to claim a prize.

These cheats even set up phony websites and telephone switchboards in order to trick people into giving out their bank account numbers, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers or other personal data.

One quick rule is to never accept a collect call from anyone claiming to be a lottery official.

Homeowners should be aware that scammers are also busy on the grassroots level. Just a few weeks ago, Lehighton residents were warned after a homeowner reported that a man was impersonating a police officer.

The cheats can take on many disguises. In the Johnstown area, a couple was accused last month of going door-to-door selling "pizza kits" supposedly to raise money for their young daughter's ballet lessons. Police say, however, they really used the "donations" of $18 to $20 taken from at least 69 residents to buy drugs. The couple even used their little girl in the ploy.

The 25-county federal court district in western Pennsylvania was even a recent target for an email identity theft scam that sought personal information from residents who were falsely told they were being contacted about jury duty.

The official looking emails claimed to be sent as part of the "National Ejuror Program," a real program used to register jurors in about 80 U.S. court districts. Some of the emails had asked for Social Security or credit card numbers and claimed the recipient owed a fine for missing jury duty.

Court officials exposed it as a fake and said that potential jurors are contacted only through the U.S. Postal Service.

Note: The state attorney general's office has a Consumer Reference Guide for Seniors on how to avoid scams and fraud at www.attorneygeneral.gov/uploadedfiles/consumers/senior_book.pdf and also offers a toll-free senior helpline at 866-623-2137.

By Jim Zbick

editor@tnonline.com