BOSTON (MainStreet) -- Today's bad economy and worse housing market are combining to create a field day for scam artists, who find easy pickings among homeowners desperate to avoid foreclosure or just save a few bucks.
"Any time that the economy is bad, scammers come out of the woodwork," says Katherine Hutt of the Better Business Bureau, which logs some 1.2 million complaints a year about scams and bad company practices in general.
Scam artists seem to especially target senior citizens.
"Many of the elderly were raised in a different time, when people were more honest than they are today," says Polyana da Costa of consumer-financial Web site Bankrate.com. "You also didn't have the Internet, which is where many of these scams originate. You go online looking for a better mortgage rate or some sort of foreclosure rescue and you end up in the wrong hands."
Here's a look at common housing-related scams that da Costa and other experts warn consumers should avoid:
This scam targets people facing foreclosure, with fraudsters promising to negotiate a loan modification for them in exchange for big upfront fees.
Lenders do approve such modifications these days, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development prohibits legitimate foreclosure-prevention counselors from charging advance fees to help you negotiate one.
"If I can get one message across to borrowers, it's: 'Do not pay any upfront fees,'" da Costa says. "I've heard of so many people who've paid $5,000 to get a loan modification but who basically got nothing -- and didn't find out until months later when they lost their homes."
Don't be fooled by loan modification specialists who advertise their services, have big offices or operate Web sites with official-sounding names based on real government foreclosure-prevention programs.
"Scammers don't look like scammers, they look professional," da Costa says. "That's how they fool you."