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NEW YORK (MainStreet)—It's a horrible feeling, the moment when you discover that a specific individual or business is untrustworthy—and they also happen to have your credit card information. Being caught in a scam is a scenario that millions of consumers deal with at any given time. And yet the ruses aren't that difficult to spot, suggests Nicole Vincent, a consumer education specialist with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

"What we often tell people is don't pay for a promise," she says. "Many scams involve someone promising you something but you have to pay up front for it. It could be offering you a job, or a scholarship, a lottery prize, a guaranteed loan, a way to lose weight or a sure-fire way to make money. The key is they want you to send the money first and they want it by a wire transfer, which is like sending cash."

Vincent has come across some pretty low scams during her tenure with the agency, but one of the worst is fake cancer cures.

"These are usually sold online [and] say they can cure different forms of cancer," she said. "Obviously it's terrible, because they are scamming someone who is already in a terrible situation, but years ago these products also told people to take the product instead of following doctors' advice to have regular treatments like radiotherapy or chemotherapy. So they were not only selling a worthless and possibly dangerous product but they were also persuading people to not follow the doctor recommended treatments."

When you see that scammers are willing to consider death as a cost of making money, you recognize how imperative it is that you, the consumer, protect yourself and your loved ones from falling into their hands, and especially from the five most successful scams, as determined by the FTC:

1. Weight Loss Products

These are products, typically some sort of pill or cream which promises dramatic weight loss without the struggle of diet or exercise.

"They made these [weight loss] claims and did not have scientific evidence to back them up," says Vincent. "We tend to tell people that products making over the top claims are just fraudulent."

How To Protect Yourself

Healthy weight loss requires a change of lifestyle, so listen to the experts and pace yourself. Realistic weight loss occurs at about one pound per week. Talk to your doctor and nutritionist about the possible lifestyles changes you can make to best achieve your health goals.

2. Prize Promotions

These are emails exclaiming that you've won something you were not aware of being in the running for. On Guard Online paints the typical scenario for this scam:

"You get a letter or an email message that claims you've already won a foreign lottery or an online sweepstakes. The letter may be from a government agency, a bank, a well-known national company or a company you never heard of. Regardless of the return address, the only thing between you and your winnings: a check or wire transfer from you to cover taxes, fees, shipping costs or insurance.

How To Protect Yourself

Scammers hope you'll let your desire for potential riches override your sensible judgment—don't. Sober up with the reality that it is indeed illegal to play in a foreign lottery and that legitimate U.S. businesses holding contests do not require payment for entry.

3. Unauthorized Billing

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1.9 million consumers have endured this scheme. These scams occur when one's credit card information has been intercepted and account funds are drawn out by a business the card holder has never heard of. The charges can come from anywhere: strange buyers' clubs, internet services or seemingly legitimate online survey promotions.

How To Protect Yourself

Do business online only with companies you trust. If your credit card has been charged against your will, immediately contact your bank and/or card issuer to make these fraudulent charges known. You'll also want to keep a careful eye on your account statements, as scammers may share your information with others. In any case, after clearing that up, it's recommended you get a replacement card if possible.

4. Work-At-Home Programs

1.8 million are conned out of their money in pursuit of the opportunity to work without a commute. These misleading programs promise easy money from the comfort of one's residence, while failing to inform buyers about everything required of a person entering said business goldmine. Oftentimes, victims are told to order what they believe to be an entire program, only to find that further software must be purchased before starting.

How To Protect Yourself

From On Guard Online:

"Legitimate home-based promoters should tell you – in writing – exactly what's involved in the program they're selling. Before you commit any money to a home-based business, ask:

  • What tasks will you have to do?
  • Will you be paid a salary or will you work on commission?
  • Who will pay you?
  • When will you get your first paycheck; how much will it be?
  • How much will you have to pay for the program? Include supplies, equipment, and membership fees.
  • What will you get for the fees you have to pay?"

5. Credit Repair/Debt Relief

Relief scams of this stripe are unfortunately commonplace; businesses advertise they will consolidate all of your debts into an itty-bitty bundle while stopping all collector harassment. They thrive on the desperation of individuals in a serious bind says Vincent, "These [debt scams] take the last dollar a person has. Someone is trying to improve their situation with the last money they have scraped together and it's going to go to a scammer."

How To Protect Yourself

The "relief" they promise almost always involves the victim filing for bankruptcy, which should only be considered as a last resort.

Bankruptcies can hurt your quality of life (ability to acquire housing and insurance) and stay on your credit report for as long as 10 years. Instead talk with your creditors and a credit counseling service in order to figure out the best available option in your circumstance.

In The Event You've Been Scammed

Remember the FTC recommends breaking contact with the scammer immediately, as contact is considered a point of vulnerability. Inform the appropriate authorities such as your attorney general and report scam activity to the FTC.

--Written by Jean-Marc Saint Laurent