The radio, TV, phone and Internet ads are often quite slick. Firms using names that sound like government agencies claim they can save homes from foreclosure. Some even go door-to-door with persuasive pitches to struggling homeowners. Google "foreclosure assistance,'' and thousands of hits will appear. Some are scam artists with federal-looking seals on their home pages.

For a fee, they say can work with mortgage companies and help owners stay put no matter how far behind they are on payments. But many of the fly-by-night firms make empty promises in order to do one thing -- steal homeowners' money.

That's why the recently launched "Look Before You Leap'' awareness campaign is so welcome and needed. The Minnesota Home Ownership Center and its partners announced plans this week to help people avoid scams and direct them to legitimate counseling.

The basic message: Don't pay anyone up front for foreclosure counseling that is widely available for free.

They'll spend the next six months getting the word out about the growing mortgage-scam business over the Internet, on Facebook and via printed materials.

Thousands of Americans need that direction, because increasing numbers of people have fallen for foreclosure scams. Local experts say they don't have good data on the number of cases in the Twin Cities or statewide because so many go unreported. However, according to HousingLink, there were 6,716 foreclosures in this state in the first three months of 2010, up 28 percent from the same period in 2009. Last year, more than 23,000 Minnesotans lost their homes to foreclosure.

In 2008, the Federal Trade Commission received one complaint about a dishonest foreclosure-counseling company; last year there were 8,000 complaints nationally. Since the foreclosure crisis started just over two years ago, lenders have tightened loan requirements and, perhaps as a consequence, more owners have felt desperate enough to turn to swindlers.

Although counties and cities send information about free mortgage counseling, struggling homeowners continue to be taken in. Desperation is one reason, but there are others. According to the state attorney general's office, the perpetrators are very good at what they do. Some now hawking foreclosure-prevention services are run by the very same people who brokered bad mortgages to begin with.

Another reason homeowners become victims is that they've had frustrating experiences trying to work with lenders. And many of the shady companies are based outside of Minnesota.

To protect consumers, the Minnesota attorney general's office has filed 15 lawsuits and has taken more than 50 enforcement actions against foreclosure scam artists. No matter how frightened or embarrassed one is by financial crisis, it only makes matters worse to deal with charlatans. Follow the Look Before You Leap advice to find help.