With more and more Americans in tough financial straits, a growing cottage industry has developed around an unlikely market -- the auto lease "swap" sector.

It's not an unusual premise. People who lose their jobs or suffer a medical calamity, just to name two instances, need to cut expenses fast. One way to do that, if you lease a car, is to find another buyer to assume your lease.

These days, it's not as difficult as it sounds. Companies like LeaseTrader.com or Swapalease.com act as brokers who, after taking a hefty fee of up to $250 or so, will get you out of an onerous lease, saving you from early termination penalties and any remaining payments.

So how do you get in on the swap? First, review your lease documentation thoroughly to check and see if it allows transfers. If the contract isn't clear, pick up the phone and call your auto lease company and ask (chances are they'll go for it, as long as the lease buyer has good credit).

A note of caution: your lease contract may allow you to swap, but it may hold you responsible if your lease buyer defaults on the contract or if he or she damages the car. Get that "out" clause in writing before you agree to a swap, and you'll have to get your car lease company's approval if the contract doesn't make it clear whether you can engage in a swap or not.

To get started with a swap, go online and check out the afore-mentioned Swapalease.com or LeaseTrader.com and list your vehicle data and any pertinent contract information. The web site then flashes your lease information across the Internet, presumably to folks interested in getting a good lease takeover deal. Swap companies will contact you as interested buyers pop up, and help you handle the swap details, all from the comfort of your home.

When you get into the auto lease swap market, you won't be alone. According to figures from LeaseTrader.com, the company handled 45,000 lease swaps in 2008 -- that's up from 20,000 in 2006.

In tough economic times, a big monthly lease payment may be more trouble than it's worth. But with auto lease swaps, now you can do something about it.