By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor

Imagine getting an e-mail from the FBI. What would you do? Chances are you'd respond to find out what's up. And bad guys who pretend to be FBI agents are counting on that.

Sierra Smith, who lives in the Seattle area, says it was very scary when she got an e-mail from "Special Agent John Edward." The message said two trunks containing $4.1 million were confiscated at JFK airport and a document inside had her name it.

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The e-mail went on to threaten arrest.

Smith replied and asked to see credentials. The follow-up e-mail had an attachment with an FBI badge and a picture ID.  In a follow-up e-mail she was asked for $850 to resolve the matter.

Smith didn't send the money. Instead, she did something very smart. She contacted the FBI office in Seattle and was told about the scam.

This is what's known as an imposter scam. The Federal Trade Commission says a growing number of scams now involve some sort of impersonation. In fact, imposter scams are now No. 6 on the FTC's list of Top Ten Complaints for 2010. The commission received more than 60,000 complaints about imposter scams last year.

"Government impersonation is a serious problem," says FTC fraud fighter Lois Greisman. "And it's not only e-mail. It's also unsolicited phone calls and text messages."

The scammers are impersonating police officers, federal agents and financial service companies. They're also pretending to be a friend or loved one in trouble who needs money.

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"They will fake anything they can possibly fake as long as they can get you to part with your money or the personal identifying information they want," says Adam Levin, Chairman of Identity Theft 911.

Spotting an Imposter

Scammers have put a new twist on an old scam by pretending to be from the FTC. The impersonator suggests the FTC is supervising a prize giveaway. He or she might even use the name of a real FTC employee snagged from the commission's website.

Potential victims are told they must wire money (anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000) to pay for the taxes in order to get their prize.

Legitimate sweepstakes don't require you to pay insurance, taxes or shipping to claim what you've won. And if you do win a real contest, you won't get the happy news from the FTC or any other government agency. It just doesn't work that way.

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FTC impersonators are also sending out fake e-mails designed to scare people into sending them money. Here's an excerpt from one:

"As we were trying to reach you since couple of days regarding a very serious matter about lawsuit filed on your name stating that you are doing some fraud and criminal activities and I am really very sorry to say you that you are going to be legally prosecuted in the Court House within couple of days and your SSN is put on hold by the US government…"

Notice the poor English, a warning sign that this e-mail is bogus. The message, supposedly by an FTC senior affidavit processor, provides a fake case number and phone number. It ends with the strong-arm pitch for money:

"This was a final notification e-mail to you if u want to resolve the issue by paying the out of Court Restitution Amount than you can do that, or do you want to face legal action?"

Tax time is prime time for scams
Cybercrooks have been pretending to be the IRS for years. One of the most common swindles starts with a bogus e-mail that says you have a big refund coming. They instruct you to click a link embedded in the message or to fill out a form provided in an attachment. Either way, you'll be asked for personal information.

"They'll tell you they need your bank account number so they can deposit the refund into your account," explains Avivah Litan, an expert on financial fraud at Gartner Research.

They may also ask for your Social Security number. Don't fall for it. Don't provide any personal information, even if the e-mail looks legitimate. Official looking IRS seals and logos can be faked. E-mail addresses can be spoofed to make it look like it's coming from "irs.gov" when it isn't. Copycat sites run by cyberthieves look just like the real IRS website.

On its (real) website, the Internal Revenue Service warns about these imposter scams: "The IRS does not send taxpayers unsolicited e-mails about their tax accounts, tax situations or personal tax issues. If you receive such an e-mail, most likely it's a scam."

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The IRS never initiates contact with a taxpayer with a phone call or e-mail. It's always by U.S. mail.

Why do people respond?
Why is it so easy to get away with impersonating a government agency or employee? Why do these clearly bogus calls and e-mails work? Don't people know a government law enforcement agency would never call them about winning a prize or e-mail them about being arrested?

"Most of these scams get you to act before you think," explains Linda Criddle, a cybersecurity expert who runs the site ilookbothways.com. "People really need to turn that around and think before they act."

Remember, no government agency would ever call or e-mail and ask you to wire money, give them your credit card or bank account information or Social Security number. Only a scammer does that.

You should be extremely suspicious any time you are being pressured to respond right away. You need to take the time to check it out. Who are you really dealing with? What do they want, why do they want it and why the rush? Unless you are 100 percent sure it's legit, hit delete, hang up or shred the letter.

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