If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That's sound advice for almost all aspects of life, including the search for mortgage relief services.

Distressed homeowners don't have to resort to third-party mortgage services. Free counseling is available at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD programs such as the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) can allow qualified homeowners to refinance their home at more favorable terms.

If you don't qualify for any HUD programs, you can work directly with your lender or consult with third-party mortgage counseling services. However, you must be careful to distinguish legitimate mortgage services from scammers. Scammers are adept at taking advantage of desperate homeowners for their own gain without providing any assistance in return.

As an example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently sued a group of firms for making false promises to distressed homeowners. The firms claimed a 98% or higher success rate, suggesting that they could secure mortgage payment reductions of hundreds of dollars per month and slice mortgage interest rates by 50%. By using modified logos, the firms falsely left the impression of endorsement by HUD's Making Home Affordable (MHA) programs.

Customers were charged upfront fees for services, with many customers receiving no loan modifications at all. In some cases, lenders were not even contacted. Meanwhile, some consumers were advised not to contact their lender or make mortgage payments.

Advice to ignore lenders/payments, charging upfront fees, and making money-back guarantees are red flags for any mortgage service, especially when guarantees are made without any discussion of your situation. Attorneys may charge upfront fees for mortgage services, but they must be licensed to practice law in your state and comply with a special set of rules.

The Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) rule was created to protect consumers from these types of scams. Check out the compliance guidelines of the MARS rule before searching for any mortgage relief services.

The guidelines, written from the business compliance perspective, can help you easily spot when a scammer is doing something blatantly illegal – such as advising you not to communicate with your loan servicer/lender.

Not all mortgage scams are targeted toward distressed homeowners. Some are variations of existing scams designed to get personal information. For example, a scammer may contact homeowners suggesting that they are part of an Attorney General's settlement and that they require bank routing information to deposit the refund.

Other scams are similar but target upfront payments. You may be contacted by a firm to join a class action suit against your lender but asked to contribute fees to become part of the lawsuit. You should never have to pay any fees to join a class action lawsuit.

Before accepting any third-party mortgage services, check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and look for any complaints with the FTC or your state Attorney General's office. Research the company online to get feedback from past customers. If you are concerned by what you find, trust your instincts and look elsewhere for assistance.

Scammers prey on desperate homeowners by offering them simple solutions to their mortgage problems.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to refinancing a home and/or avoiding foreclosure. Stick with HUD-approved programs and counselors with verified credentials. You need financial discipline and a solid plan to recover from a bad mortgage situation, and you need the assistance of professionals who can give you the correct advice for your situation – even if it's advice that you really don't want to hear.

This article was provided by our partners at moneytips.com.

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