Think Internet fraud is something that only happens to other people? You might be unpleasantly surprised. I know I was. A couple of months ago, my SunTrust (NYSE:STI) checking account was drained of nearly $3,000 in a matter of a few days. But I can't blame SunTrust. The security failure was mine alone.

How does a woman with two graduate degrees and what she hoped was good sense fall for a scam? The thieves had crafted an email (supposedly from SunTrust), indicating that the bank was concerned about some recent activity on my account. My job, according to the email, was to confirm my account number and change my password to prevent any further possibility of fraud.

Once I "confirmed" the information, my transaction history began to look like something out of Roman Holiday -- someone in Italy was having a grand time with my money.

I had always assumed that I would be able to spot Internet fraud a mile away, expecting emails characterized by amateurish design, riddled with misspellings, and rife with promises like "Send us $500 and receive water from the REEL fountain of youth." I did not, I am embarrassed to say, expect the level of sophistication of this generation of cyber-thief.

As The Motley Fool has warned, Internet hustlers are crafting increasingly complicated fake websites and emails, using copies of the company logos and typeface, duplicating the company's login page, disguising hyperlinks, and sometimes linking to genuine company pages simply to fool you. It's a scam known as "phishing," and the losses to U.S. consumers are estimated to be anywhere from the hundreds of millions to more than a billion dollars -- not to mention the erosion in consumer confidence.

Internet fraud can happen to you. In the first four days of November alone, consumer protection group FraudWatch International posted fraud alerts for more than 100 schemes perpetrated against customers of companies such as eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), Citibank (NYSE:C), and America Online (NYSE:AOL). And those customers aren't all lonely octogenarians.

How can you guard against cyber-crooks? Here are a few tips:

  1. Proceed very cautiously with any request for account information. Independently verify any request for information by calling the company or by opening a new browser and finding the website on your own.

  2. Fight back with your own technology. Use a personal firewall, anti-virus software, and anti-spam software to protect your computer from trespassers.

  3. Don't click on hyperlinks in emails.

  4. Familiarize yourself with the security measures adopted by all of the companies with whom you do business.

  5. Keep abreast of current fraud alerts by visiting the websites of the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Federation of America, and FraudWatch International. Seeing an example of a fraudulent email solicitation can be helpful in preparing you for what may be sitting in your inbox.

Want some other tips for managing your accounts? Try these articles from

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp does not own any of the stocks mentioned in this article, though she thinks medieval stocks would be too good a punishment for whomever emptied her account.