Homeowners fearing foreclosure can find help without paying exorbitant, upfront fees. Any outfit offering mortgage salvation in exchange for cash is actually peddling anything but, as free or inexpensive services for aiding desperate people do exist.

These unsavory firms, with reassuring names like “Fresh Start Mortgage Assistance Solutions,” are a bottom-feeding product of the doubts and desperation from the home mortgage crisis. Fearful homeowners are turning to these firms to save their homes and credit scores, at a devastating price.

Maine regulators demanded 15 such operators get lost on Tuesday, the latest salvo in a seeming stampede of cease-and-desist orders, lawsuits and injunctions being levied by financial regulators, attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission. More are needed. More should come.

Homeowners in Maine who think they’ve been suckered by one of these firms should report it; information is available at www.credit.maine.gov, or by calling 1-800-332-8529.

The 15 offenders identified by Maine mostly hail from areas hardest hit by the housing bubble: Southern California, Florida, Arizona. Regulators say these areas provide ripe pickings for scammers to capitalize on the rapid misfortunes of overwhelmed homeowners. And a jumping off point for taking their “services” national.

So far, these firms have taken Maine homeowners for about $36,000 — in chunks of $500, $1,000 or $1,500 — as far as state regulators know, as the scope of the problem is limited to what’s been reported.

A comprehensive crackdown on these mortgage rescue firms is overdue. One is undoubtedly coming; the FTC in recent months has started attacking this sector with volleys of stoppage orders, while the states of Ohio and New York have sued firms operating within their borders.

Maine’s announcement seems small against these titans, but state regulators here deserve praise for adding their voices to the growing chorus of opposition. Those who prey on people when they’re most vulnerable cannot be tolerated — what they’re doing is not only unethical, but illegal.

There are 39 licensed and bonded firms in Maine that offer services for desperate homeowners; they settle debts or help start payment plans. By law, regulators say, these firms cannot charge anything more than a $75 processing fee to begin (with other fees based on actual services to follow).

Government agencies and nonprofits offer similar services for free. In short, there’s no reason for homeowners to pay sketchy firms with friendly, misleading names thousands of dollars for “rescue.”

All that will buy is a bill of goods.

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