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Online scammers have devised yet another deceptive way to steal credit card information and cheat consumers out of cash.

Online credit card scams have increased 100 percent in the last four to five years, but phishing is a phenomenon of the last two, said Constance Hurd, Corporate Security Officer at Omega Financial Corporation, 366 Walker Dr.

Phishing is an elaborate scamming technique employed through e-mail with the intent of tricking recipients into disclosing their private account information, said Ed Conklin, privacy officer for Nittany Bank, 116 E. College Ave.

The impostor sends out fraudulent e-mails that use the name of a legitimate bank and ask for verification of private account information, Conklin said.

"Phishing is where somebody, a would-be fraudster, sends out the same e-mail to a million people," Conklin said. "It's asking you to do something: Click on this link, enter your credit card and pin number. What they are trying to do is steal your information so they can use your credit card."

The number of known phishing sites on the Internet hit 2,560 in January of 2005, an increase of 47 percent since December 2004, according to a report from the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

No credible bank would ever ask a customer to verify information through e-mail, so that is the first red flag, Conklin said. "A good rule of thumb is to ignore the e-mail campaigns because a good amount of those are fraudulent," he said.

Stephanie Oakes, assistant vice president of electronic banking at Jersey Shore State Bank, said she encountered several phishing e-mails sent through Penn State Webmail.

"I take courses through Penn State World Campus online, and I was not a student for Penn State for three days before I started getting [phishing e-mails]," she said.

The e-mails asked for her account information and were supposedly from a Nigerian man who claimed the Oakes' family was heir to a $5 million fortune, she said.

Though a Web site address may look authentic, a legitimate bank will never e-mail you for account information if you did not initiate the transaction yourself, Hurd said.

"Never respond to an unsolicited email, just delete it immediately unless you know who it's from, because a lot of the time, they can also send viruses," she said.

Look for an image of a lock at the bottom of the Web site, an Internet security measure indicating that the site is valid, she said.

The lock in the bottom corner should link to a secure Web site that begins with "https," Oakes said.

However, Paypal has had serious problems in the past because fraudsters were somehow able to link the real Web site to the fake e-mail account, and get customers' account information through it, she said.

The first thing a student should do if their credit card has been lost or stolen is to notify the bank, Conklin said.

At Nittany Bank and most other banks, the credit card can be canceled immediately to prevent additional fraudulent charges, he said.

Everyone is entitled to one credit report per year, and it is highly recommended by financial institutions to ensure that your credit information has not been compromised, Hurd said.

To learn more about phishing, visit www.annualcreditreport.com to acquire a free credit report.

After reviewing the report, any suspicious activity should be reported to one of the three credit reporting companies -- Experian, Equifax or TransUnion -- to have them put a flag on the account.