Marquitia Fell isn't sure how she got to the Web site -- she linked from one site to another to another -- but finally, in black and white, she found the promise she'd been looking for: a promise to make her mortgage problems go away.
Fell's bank was threatening to kick her out of her Germantown, Maryland, home November 6 because she was behind on her mortgage. The agency she found on the Internet said that if she paid $1,300 now and an additional $1,500 later, it would take care of her mortgage problems.
Fell sent in a check and a few days later was kicking herself.
"A friend said to me, 'You did what?' " she said. "She told me there were places out there that could help me and wouldn't charge me a dime. I couldn't believe it. There have to be millions of people out there who don't know you can get help for free. It's so sad."
"It really is sad," said Colleen Hernandez, president and chief executive of the Homeownership Preservation Foundation, where Fell is now getting help at no charge.
"I Google 'foreclosure prevention' every day, and nine out of the 10 things I see, they're charging a lot of money and making promises that are too good to be true," she says. "People don't realize nonprofits can help you out and get good results for free."
When you're anxious about your finances, like Fell is, talking to a financial counselor can make you breathe a lot easier, says Lynn Bufka, spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association.
"Sometimes, we get almost paralyzed by our fear or anxiety that it's difficult to figure out on our own what our first steps need to be," said Bufka, a psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland.
She warns people against trying to figure their way out of a financial pickle using the Internet exclusively.
"Information on the Internet is overwhelming and can make you even more anxious and distressed," she said. "Articles may not provide you with anything helpful. They may not tell you specifically what you should be doing."
So if you want to find a professional to tell you what to do, for free, check out these four options. They won't cost you a dime.
1. The Homeownership Preservation Foundation
Call 1-888-995-HOPE (4673) and receive free counseling when you're facing foreclosure. The hotline is staffed 24/7 by 400 counselors. The average waiting time to talk to one of them is two minutes.
Counselors will go over your options and do everything they can to help you stay in your home.
A year after receiving counseling, 70 percent of those counseled were still in their homes, Hernandez says.
"I listened to someone talk for three hours the other day," she said. "At the end of the session, counselors give you their direct phone number, and that counselor is yours for as long as you need them."
Although the foundation primarily works on foreclosures, counselors can connect you with free services if you have other financial issues, such as credit card debt.
Fell, a policy analyst for the Food and Drug Administration, speaks three times a week to the counselor she reached through the Homeownership Preservation Foundation. Her counselor, Nadiyah Casey, got her $1,300 back from the first agency she tried and is trying to get Fell's bank to lower the interest rate on her adjustable-rate mortgage. She's also trying to get the state of Maryland, where Fell lives, to lower her property taxes.
SCORE, a nonprofit association working in partnership with the Small Business Administration, offers financial counseling to small businesses.
You can get face-to-face counseling by using their ZIP code locator, or you can receive counseling via e-mail.
You may be a small business and not even know it, says SCORE spokesman Michael Keaton.
"A mom operating a tutoring service out of her home would be welcome to get advice and mentoring from SCORE," he said. "If a handyman is self-employed, he also could get SCORE counseling."
Ask a real lawyer about foreclosure, credit or bankruptcy issues at avvo.com. The attorneys are screened and profiled on the site, so you can read more about the person giving you free advice.
4. Credit unions
Many credit unions give their members free or low-cost credit counseling. Even if your employer doesn't have a credit union, it's worth looking for one to join in this credit union locator. Some accept anyone who lives in a certain geographical area.
Fell says she's confident she now won't get kicked out of her house in November, and she's doing her own small part to get at foreclosure scammers.
The other day she called one agency that wanted $1,500 to help her -- and promised to return only $500 of it if they weren't able to help. "I was so angry, I called them and said, 'How can you charge people at a time like this, knowing that the same service is offered for free by other people?' They couldn't answer me, so I sent them an e-mail. I still haven't heard back."