The "Nigerian Prince" scam has become a joke, but that same kind of "Advance Fee Scheme" is still stealing millions of dollars from consumers every year. Whether the offer comes through email, social media, postal mail or over the phone, if you are asked to pay a fee in advance to collect a larges sum of money or something of great value, it's probably a fraud.

Advance Fee Schemes come in many varieties. You may, for example, be asked to pay upfront taxes in return for money from an estate or lottery payout. You could be asked to pay legal fees (or even bribe money) to free an innocent and wealthy foreign dignitary - who promises to shower you with riches upon release.

While the variations on this type of fraud are limited only by the imaginations of con artists around the world, the basics always remain the same: You can make millions ... if you first send a small amount of money.

How to avoid Advance Fee Schemes

  • Do your research. Oftentimes, each specific scam is targeted at thousands of people at one time. That means that an Internet search will likely turn up reports of the scam.
  • To confirm any offer, never use the telephone number or address provided to you by a company with which you are unfamiliar. If someone representing a company contacts you, you should be able to get in touch with that company using a publicly listed phone number or address.
  • Always verify that you are doing business with a legitimate company before you offer any sensitive information.
  • If you are ever in doubt about the legitimacy of a person or company, seek advice from a competent attorney. They can help protect you from unfair agreements and fraud.

In the end, the old saying holds true: If an offer is too good to be true, it probably is.