Homeowners struggling to meet their mortgage payments should not wait until they default on a payment before speaking to their lender. Hope and help are available.

Hope Now, a private alliance of mortgage services, non-profit counselors and investors helped 270,000 homeowners keep

their homes in April 2009. The organization reaches at-risk borrowers through its Web site, www.hopenow.com and community events, where homeowners can meet their lenders directly, as well as speak to representatives from Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Legal Aid. Hope Now also operates a telephone hotline, where homeowners can speak to non-profit counselors, at 1-888-995-HOPE.

Before calling their lender, homeowners should compile their financial information. Before restructuring a loan, lenders will want to see hard numbers stating income and expenses. Homeowners also need to be savvy -- scammers have found endless ways to profit from the housing crisis.

Scammers sift through public foreclosure notices in newspapers or use advertisements to reach desperate homeowners. Then they take mortgage payments, home equity or ownership of the home.

To avoid being scammed, Hope Now suggests homeowners be aware of potential "red flags":

* The service guarantees to stop foreclosure, no matter what.

* The service collects an upfront fee.

* The service tells you not to contact your lender, lawyer or credit or housing counselor.

* The service only accepts payment by cashier's check or wire transfer.

* The service encourages you to lease your home so you can buy it back over time.

* The service wants to collect your mortgage payments.

* The service tells you to transfer your deed or title to it, or offers to buy your home at a fixed price.

* The service offers to fill out paperwork for you, or pressures you to sign paperwork that you have not read or do not understand.

To find legitimate help, homeowners need to contact their lender directly or call 1-888-995-HOPE to speak with non-profit counselors. To find out about foreclosure prevention options, read "Mortgage Payments Sending You Reeling? Here's What to Do" at www.ftc.gov.