Q: I received a letter/e-mail saying that I won a lottery that I never entered. It asks me to pay some taxes in order to receive my funds. Is this a scam?
A: Did you enter a lottery? If not, how could you win? Throw it out.
Complain to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov) about e-mail scams. It tracks senders who are located outside the United States and forwards its findings to the proper authorities.
Q: We think we have enough money saved for a deposit on a home of our own. We've found some great mortgage rates on the Internet, but we are worried they're too good to be true.
A: Be very careful that these offers are not ''teaser'' rates. Down the road, the rates could skyrocket, and you could easily find yourself unable to meet the payments. To make matters worse, such loans often come with exorbitant prepayment penalties, leaving nowhere for borrowers to turn, forcing them into foreclosure and, quite probably, bankruptcy.
The high rate of foreclosure in the subprime market, which is where homebuyers with less than stellar credit find a mortgage, has brought about a crisis in the industry itself leading to the collapse of dozens of lenders. Congress is considering what could be done to protect consumers from unscrupulous lenders.
All subprime loans are risky, according to Ellen Schloemer, director of research at Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), www.responsiblelending.org. But the more ''exotic'' the arrangement, as has become common in recent years, the riskier it is.
Taking out a loan in the ''prime'' market is much safer, not least because the lenders are tightly regulated. Sixty percent of subprime loans are issued by finance companies, which are governed by much looser regulations, putting borrowers at greater risk.
Although prime mortgages look more expensive at first glance, their interest rates are significantly lower, saving borrowers thousands of dollars over the life of the loan. The catch is that you need good credit to qualify; that means, according to Schloemer, you need a credit score of 660 or higher.
The subprime market is heavily targeted toward minorities, but she noted that it's not uncommon for minority loan applicants to incorrectly believe that their credit rating is worse than it really is. Possibly as many as 30 percent of subprime borrowers would qualify for better loan rates.
Part of the problem lies with brokers, who, Schloemer said, steer applicants to subprime loans because they make the broker more money. However, consumers are also at fault for rushing into a deal without taking the time to fully understand the transaction.
So what are your options?
First, you (and your partner) need copies of your credit reports and your credit score. Go over the reports carefully; if there are errors -- and 25 percent of reports contain them -- correct them. Don't apply for any loan until all incorrect, negative information has been removed, a process that probably will take several months. (It might even require the help of a lawyer who specializes in consumer credit issues.) Getting this right could ultimately save you many thousands of dollars.
It's essential you do your homework and understand how your loan works, especially if it's an adjustable rate mortgage. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers good information at www.hud.gov/buying, and it also links to local organizations offering home-buyer education and assistance. Beyond that, Miami-Dade and Broward offer programs for first-time buyers. In Dade, visit www.miami dade.gov/hfa/hp_home buyers.asp or call 786-331-5361. In Broward, go to www.broward.org/housing or call 954-765-5311. Many homebuyer programs guarantee that you will be prequalified for a loan upon completion of the course. The National Association of Realtors offers additional information and calculators at www.realtor.com.
Finally, when you're ready to take the plunge, compare at least a dozen loan offers. Don't get sucked in by that unrealistically low, introductory interest rate.