Nonprofit foreclosure counselors can help homeowners postpone sheriff's sales and navigate the loan modification process. Nonprofit financial counselors also can meet with strapped consumers to explore debt-payoff options. Knowing that, if you're still looking at for-profit companies in those fields, or hoping to hire a lawyer specializing in debt-settlement or foreclosures, consider:

Is the lawyer licensed to practice law in Minnesota?

Lawyers are exempt only if they're licensed to practice law in Minnesota. Look up attorneys at the Minnesota Supreme Court: www.mncourts.gov/mars/default.aspx

Has the lawyer been disciplined?

Check with the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board: lprb.mncourts.gov/Pages/Default.aspx

Is the company licensed?

Check to see if it is licensed with the Minnesota Department of Commerce by using the agency's license lookup tool: www.commerce.state.mn.us/LicenseLookupMain.html

Is there a nonprofit offering a similar service?

For foreclosure help, check www.lookbeforeyouleap.org. For debt counseling, visit the National Foundation for Credit counseling at www.nfcc.org.

For questions about what debt-settlement companies and other financial assistance firms are allowed to charge and what disclosures they are required to share, check out the Department of Commerce's website: mn.gov/commerce and the Federal Trade Commission: www.ftc.gov.