A new report by the non-profit Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law shows that the middle-aged and elderly have been severely hit by foreclosure rescue scams—and their numbers are growing.

The "rescuers" target victims who are having trouble paying their mortgages by offering phony counseling sessions or fraudulent deals when it comes to reverse mortgages, loan modifications, sale-leasebacks and other supposed help. Although the scammers operate everywhere, a large number of scamming companies are based in California, Florida and Maryland.

People over the age of 51 made up 42 percent of the reports that the group received in the first half of 2011, compared to 36 percent in the second half of 2010. Of the scam victims, 9.3 percent were age 65 or older.

Moreover, homeowners over the age of 51 lost, on average, $300 more than all scam victims, or $3,358. Overall, older Americans lost about 41 percent, or $16.6 million, of the $40.2 million stolen by scammers.

So what should you do if you are having trouble paying your mortgage? A good first step is to visit the the Federal Trade Commission's website, which offers step-by-step help. If you think you have been victimized by a scammer, call the Homeownership Preservation Foundation's toll-free hotline at 1-888-995-4673.

Above all, avoid doing business with any company that:

  • Asks you for an upfront fee (unless it's a lawyer you've vetted).
  • Guarantees that it will stop foreclosure proceedings or get you a loan modification.
  • Tells you not to contact your lender, lawyer or housing counselor.
  • Accepts payment only by cashier's check or wire transfer.
  • Advises you to stop paying your mortgage.
  • Asks you to sign over your deed or property title.
  • Offers to buy your house for a deep discount.
  • Asks you to release personal financial information online or over the phone.
  • Pushes you to sign documents you don't understand or haven't read.