Pete Giancola was looking for a fishing boat for his son, so he went looking on eBay, where he found one listed for a good price. He began the purchase...

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MINNEAPOLIS — Pete Giancola was looking for a fishing boat for his son, so he went looking on eBay, where he found one listed for a good price.

He began the purchase, but it didn’t take long for “the bells and whistles to start going off” for Giancola, an insurance agent trained to look for fraud.

First, the seller wouldn’t let Giancola’s friend, who lived in the state where the boat was located, drop off the money personally. So Giancola, who lives in Jordan, Minn., checked the boat’s registration in Wisconsin and found it was fraudulent.

Giancola backed out of the deal before it was too late and was so angry that he vowed the “seller” would never take anyone the way he’d come close to being taken.

“I wanted to make sure this didn’t happen to someone else, but I can’t,” he said.

Like thousands of others being scammed on the Internet or on the phone, Giancola found it nearly impossible to do anything. Americans are now taken for more than $5 billion per year in various scams, according to Federal Trade Commission estimates.

And while the prevalence of scams is growing as criminals take advantage of increasingly sophisticated technology, prosecutions are few and far between.

“We’re working it aggressively,” said the FBI’s Paul McCabe, a special agent in the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “But, sadly, there’s so much [fraud] we just have to go after the biggest offenders. Sometimes the best thing we can do is education.”

Thieves are getting more sophisticated, often sharing “sucker lists” of people who have nibbled at offers in hopes that they’ll bite at the next one.

U.S. citizens lose about $120 million per year by biting on fake foreign lottery scams and an additional $100 million or so in a Nigerian scam, in which victims are promised large sums but first have to put up money of their own, according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

The percentage of victims who get their money back is small, and the number of scammers caught is limited, the FBI’s McCabe said.

The FBI is the only agency with jurisdiction across state lines and in other countries. It doesn’t have enough people to chase every case. So agents concentrate on looking for serial scammers and fraud rings.

When victims call, the FBI directs them to fill out a report on its Web site. Agents look at patterns and then go after repeat perpetrators. The FBI now has Internet scam offices in Nigeria, Russia and other Eastern European countries, McCabe said.

But there’s another problem: Getting cooperation from foreign governments can be tricky.

McCabe said the local bureau solved a major case involving a ring from a Middle Eastern country last year, leading to the arrest of a ring abroad. But when agents wanted to hold a news conference, officials from the country backed off, not wanting the publicity.