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Each year Americans are scammed out of billions of dollars, and most don't even know it until it's too late. A handful of people right here in the Panhandle have fallen victim to phone and mail scams in the past few weeks.

The Bay County Sheriff's Office received at least five complaints about a scam that begins with a collect call from a prison in south Florida. The inmate asks the victim to call his loved one using a special long distance feature (* 72) plus the area code and phone number. The inmate says the feature will ensure the victim is not charged, but that's far from the truth.

"The victim calls that number as instructed. It enables the phone he's called to then make long distance phone calls for any amount of time and the victim receives the bill," says Ruth Sasser, spokesperson for the Bay County Sheriff's Department.

Sasser says there are also two new mail scams in our area that claims you've won the lottery. The first is called the Spanish Lottery. The letter claims you won $600,000, but you have to send in $1,600 before you receive the prize money.

The second scam is from a company called ITC Holding. A local man received a check from them for $3,000. He found out after he spent it that the check was bogus.

Sheriff's officials say it's hard to find these scam artists and hold them responsible, so they say it's important for you to protect yourself. Always file a police report so you can refute any bogus charges on your phone bill, and ignore any letter that declares you a lottery winner, especially if you've never entered the lottery.