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Beware unlicensed "specialists"

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Millions of Americans have lost their homes in the current foreclosure crisis. Millions more stand to do so in the future. But they should think twice before doing business with so-called mortgage modification specialists. Such entities, regulators warn, may really just be unlicensed credit counselors.

According to Gavin Gee, director of the Idaho Department of Finance, mortgage loan modification specialists are soliciting homeowners with promises of relief on their mortgage payments. The problem is, they charge for services homeowners could do themselves. Plus the fees they charge can be sizable and nonrefundable, with no assurance of real financial relief.

If clients ask you about such services, make sure they exhaust other avenues first. Gee suggests consumers start by communicating directing with their lenders or loan servicers. Several large banks, including J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc., have announced relief programs to help stressed borrowers.

Then they should take advantage of free state-level housing counseling programs. Clients can also call the (888) 995-HOPE hotline for free counseling and access to foreclosure alternatives. “It’s important that homeowners contact their lenders, servicers, or a qualified housing counselor as soon as they suspect they may have trouble making their mortgage payments,” Gee says.

If clients decide to deal with a loan modification firm, make sure they verify the company’s license first.