Homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages have been taking advantage of the government's new loan-modification program. Unfortunately, so have scam artists.

The effort has given rise to a slew of loan-modification companies that target the more than 5 million homeowners behind on their payments. Some of them are legit, but many aren't. They usually charge a few thousand dollars for their work. What borrowers don't realize is they can complete the process themselves for free.

To get started, contact your lender. The lender is the only company with the authority to change your loan terms. The process will be similar to when you applied for your mortgage. You will need to provide financial documents and a letter that explains your economic hardship.

Loan-modification companies argue that the process can get complicated and they can save time and prevent frustration. But this convenience is pricey, especially for people who can't afford their payments. If a company charges $3,000 for a loan modification, that's like paying $25 an hour for 120 hours of work. You can complete the entire process in far less time.

It's also important that you fully understand your new loan terms. By going through the modification process yourself, you will be more familiar with what you're signing. It will also give you the opportunity to ask questions and avoid surprises.

There's also free help available from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and through the Homeownership Preservation Foundation Web site.

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