As long as there have been people who've worked hard for money, there have been other people who have been trying to get that money through playing on people's emotions. Begging is one of the world's oldest trades for a reason, and as we've seen there are people who can make very decent livings putting on ratty clothes and sitting on the streets. However, with the advent of the Internet and information technology con artists have started taking their game to another level. If you want to avoid being a mark it's important that you know what to look for so that you recognize a phishing lure when it bobbles right in front of your face.
First of all it's important to remember that con artists will play on your emotions. One of these emotions is pity, which is one that's been shown to almost always work with email scams that detail someone losing their job, getting in a car wreck and trying to pay mounting bills while dying of cancer. If there is a drive to help this person, and there probably will be, there will be a benefit somewhere and you'll need to buy tickets. It won't be sent out over the Internet to your inbox. Another desire that an email scheme will play on is greed, and anyone who thinks they're smart enough to get something for nothing by assisting the hereditary King of Uganda by funneling his treasury and keeping some of it is probably going to find themselves on the short end of someone else's stick. Lastly, the schemes will play on fear... people who are afraid often act without thinking and give up valuable information that can be taken advantage of later. Keep this in mind when you're checking your messages and if something seems to be trying to tug on one of these strings, give it a very critical look.
Secondly, even if the emotional manipulation isn't so blatant there are key things to look for in an email scam. For instance, any email that comes from an address you don't recognize (or which is a nonsensical collection of letters and numbers) is likely a spam scam. The same is true if the sender claims to be from your bank or from somewhere in England, but the email address is something like SexyJesus352@yahoo.com, chances are you've got a poorly thought out scam. Anything where the text is jumbled up like a collection of search terms, or where you have nothing but a link to a website you've never heard of is likely also another email scam trying to hook you. Anything that doesn't address you by your proper name, or by a screen name that you have somewhere it also probably a generic lure to hook your interest, so keep a sharp eye.
Lastly, and this applies to all types of phishing scams as well as email scams, do not under any circumstances give out your private information. If someone calls or emails asking for your username and password, they are not genuine representatives of whatever power they claim to be working for. And while the idea of someone wiring money to your bank account sounds great, if they want your name, social security number, bank number and other personal information you are basically handing them the key to your wallet. The same is true if someone calls you up claiming to be Craig from your bank... if you don't know anyone named Craig then it could have been some guy that saw you go in and out of a bank branch on Friday. Do not give out your personal information over the phone. Or if you're going to, call the bank directly yourself to be sure you're speaking to a genuine representative.
That covers some of the basics, but scam artists are called that for a reason and there's no limit to the creativity that greed and cleverness can inspire. So it's always best that you err on the side of caution. At worst you look foolish and a little paranoid. If you decide to be too trusting of what you see and hear though, then at worst someone claiming to be you just bought a house and car in a former Soviet Republic and you have no legal recourse.