Maybe it’s the state of the economy, with buyers on the lookout for ways to cut corners and cheaters trying to avoid honest work by coming up with more and more schemes to fleece the unsuspecting.

Or maybe it’s the Internet, where distance and anonymity breed a peculiar mixture of trust and vulnerability.

Or maybe we’re just more gullible than we used to be, or at least more willing to talk about being scammed.

Whatever the reason, and it’s probably a combination of the above, complaints about dishonest or unethical behavior in the horse business seem to be on the rise. And it’s not just the well-publicized cases like the Jess Jackson dual agency lawsuits or the Tom Selleck verdict.

An elderly Texas couple pays a pet cemetery several hundred dollars to bury their beloved horse. When they drive to the cemetery to visit the grave they can’t find it, or the remains of the horse, or any satisfactory explanation from the facility owners.

A woman purchases a horse trailer through a well-known and legitimate third-party website. She pays for the trailer but the seller never delivers the goods.

A couple adopts two horses from an individual who promises owner financing for a farm. The deal falls through, and the couple, who cannot qualify for traditional financing, feel cheated.

An ad makes a hard-to-refuse offer: a free horse and free transportation. To seal the deal, the person accepting the horse receives a check for a few thousand dollars with instructions to deposit the check, pay the van company, and send whatever is left to the person placing the ad. It’s a new version of the Nigerian windfall/Irish Sweepstakes winner letter. There is no free horse, the check is bogus, and the person duped by the ad winds up with a serious dent in his or her bank account.

A telephone solicitor makes a plea for a donation to a legitimate charity. What the solicitor doesn’t say is that the majority of your donation, maybe as much as 80 per cent or more, goes to the fund raisers and not to the charity itself.

There are legal avenues to pursue if you think you’ve been scammed, such as criminal complaints and civil lawsuits, but the best defense is to avoid being cheated in the first place. There are some common-sense things to keep in mind:

Before giving money to any individual, business, or organization you don’t know, check them out. Personal references are best, but not always available. The Better Business Bureau is a good source for business information, as is Charity Navigator or similar web sites for non-profits. A clean bill of health from the BBB doesn’t guarantee honesty, but a file loaded with complaints should be a red flag demanding a more thorough investigation before you write a check or pass along a credit card number. By the same token, file a complaint with the BBB if you think you’ve been cheated. You may not get your money back, but your complaint might help someone else.

Pay for merchandise with a credit card whenever possible. You generally can stop payment if there is a problem with what you’ve ordered, and the credit card company may help provide leverage with a recalcitrant seller. But protect your credit card number and other personal information to prevent identity theft.

Ask telephone solicitors how much of your donation actually will go to the charity. If they refuse to provide that information, or if the fund raisers’ cut is too high, consider a donation directly to the charity.

If you’re buying a horse, have a purchase examination by a veterinarian of your choosing and insist on a tryout.

Remember that dishonest sellers might advertise on a legitimate and totally above-board website.

Do your homework. An elderly Saddlebred trainer once told me that "a piece of paper will lie down and let you write anything on it." The same holds true for an Internet advertisement.

Buying anything sight unseen is a bad idea, and relying on a photograph is almost as dangerous.

And finally, "caveat emptor"—let the buyer beware!