Receiving a check in the mail is usually cause to celebrate, especially if it’s a lottery winning with lots of zeros attached, but one local bank is warning its customers to beware of something that sounds, and may even look, too good to be true.

“I am often surprised at how truly realistic the checks look,” said Stephanie McGee, senior vice president in charge of operations at First National Bank in Huntsville. “But you have to be careful because these scams will always include something like, ‘If you do something for us, we’ll give you 10 percent.’’

More than a handful of First National customers have been swindled by e-mails and regular mailings asking folks to cash a check and send back a portion for taxes or fees. By the time the checks are cashed and the money wired back to the scam artist, the bank informs the customer it’s fraudulent. Then the customer can find themselves in the hole for thousands of dollars.

“We have training for our employees about these scams,” McGee said. “We’re wanting to educate our customers as well, and tell them no matter how much they want to believe it, these things are not real.”

Bank president Jim Coleman said it’s not just the customer’s account that is depleted, but their spirit as well.

“Once they are told it’s not the real deal, whether they’ve cashed the check or not, it’s a real downer for them,” he said. “And we’re seeing it increasing. All these scams are pretty much the same, just with different variations.”

McGee said victims often try to “reason through it” so it seems possible they’ve been awarded money or someone really did get their information from a sweepstakes they entered online.

Coleman said First National is working to prevent loss to its customers by taking precautions within the company, an effort banking institutions are making nationwide.

“We have a pretty good system of checks and balances here,” he said. “For certain deposits, our system will kick it back for further review if it’s an unusual amount for a particular customer.”

McGee added, “It usually gets to me when people have lost money, so we’re trying to get the word out about this kind of thing.”

As far as a few rules of thumb:

• Customers should always contact their bank if they receive a check in the mail from a foreign lottery or an offer for money that seems suspect.

• Most of the scammers use wires or cashier’s checks as a method for the victim to return money to them. The victim is left holding the bag when the cashed check turns out to be fraudulent.

“Beware if the contact is asking you to send a percentage of the check back to them for taxes or fees,” Coleman said. “If you’re really a winner, why wouldn’t those taxes and fees just be taken out in the first place? You shouldn’t have to give money to get money.”

• Ask yourself common sense questions.

1. Is the letter or e-mail from a stranger? Sometimes, these scams include realistic correspondence through the mail or e-mail.

2. Does the writer claim to be a chief, prince, doctor, minister, etc.?

3. Did the writer find you through some directory or organization you’ve never heard of?

4. Are there hundreds of other e-mail addresses in the Cc: section of the e-mail?

5. Is the money coming to you because you are the heir to a fortune from a relative you have never heard of?

• Be wary of any correspondence asking for banking information.

“Banks are not going to e-mail you with that request,” McGee said. “Always feel free to contact your bank if you feel something’s not right.”