Anyone who uses Internet email regularly can tell you about the dangers of unsolicited correspondence delivered through the worldwide web. Often these emails contain a virus, worm or Trojan horse that can wreak havoc on your equipment and files.

Fraudulent emails can also deliver malware to your computer, placing your name on an advertising list or even earmark your computer for the delivery and installation of spyware and other malicious-sounding programs.

But USDA is warning farmers coast-to-coast this week about an old hat trick that already has victimized a few farmers and which is apparently spreading from state-to-state at an alarming rate, causing the USDA’s Office of Inspector General to launch an investigation.

USDA reports fraudulent faxes and phone calls are making their way through several states this week, official-sounding requests for personal and financial information. The Agency is warning faxes received by some rural residents sport both the USDA logo and Seal, and in more than one instance bears the name of USDA Senior Procurement Officer "Frank Rutenberg.”

The problem is, USDA reports there is no senior procurement officer at the Agency and a check indicates there is no employee that works there by that name.

USDA Information Officer Paul Fenney in Washington says the Agency’s Office of Inspector General can not comment on any ongoing investigation and refrained from confirming or denying rumors of an official investigation. But he warned fraudulent scams and schemes can be a problem for unsuspecting victims.

According to reports, phone calls and faxes have been circulating across rural America in four states so far -- Alabama, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- and USDA officials who declined to be indentified because of department policy say farmers should be careful before responding to requests by phone, fax or mail without first confirming with USDA the validity of the request.

“Identity theft starts with the misuse of your personally identifying information such as your name and Social Security number, credit card numbers, or other financial account information,” says Tom Wiggins, Outsource Data Center investigator in Houston. “They may create counterfeit checks using your name or account number or may open a bank account in your name—even use your name to take advantage of a government program.”

He warns potential victims to carefully evaluate all requests for personal or financial information before responding.

“It doesn’t matter how they contact you. It could be a phone call, email or letter through the mail—even a visit to your door. But regardless how much you think they seem legitimate, you should always go the extra mile to confirm their identity. Get a badge number or ID number and make a call to their home office, especially if they represent themselves as being with the government or a financial institution. These people can clone your ATM or debit card and make electronic withdrawals in your name in no time, draining your accounts or even take out a loan in your name. It happens every day.”

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission web site indicates consumers fall victim to fraud once every 2.5 minutes, but FTC officials say armed with the knowledge of how to protect yourself and take action, victims can make identity thieves' jobs more difficult. You can also help fight identity theft by educating your friends, family, and members of your community.