The letters are subtle or not so subtle, oblique or straightforward, and they arrive promptly once a home has been advertised for foreclosure.

They come from the speculators, brokers and real estate agents who scour the legal notices in the local newspapers, hoping to make a buck off hard times. "Vultures scavenging over the obituaries of real estate," says one Washington lawyer.

Some of the correspondents are real estate agents looking for new listings; others are moneylenders offering high-interest, short-term loans. Many are brokers, looking for houses with substantial equity that can be bought cheap, sold high and return a hefty profit to investors.

A Prince George's County couple received at least 15 such letters when their two-story home was advertised for foreclosure.

"CASH -- CASH -- CASH! WANT TO SELL?" shouted one postcard. "Spot Cash in 24 Hours for Your House. Spot Cash for Your Equity . . . But Don't Wait Too Long," it closed ominously, "Others Are Being Contacted."

"My wife and I are sorry to learn from the newspaper of the foreclosure on your house," read a letter on pink stationery from federal employe David Hogben of Rockville, who describes himself as a private investor. "It's a hobby," said Hogben by telephone.

"Dear Homeowner, hopefully you have worked out the foreclosure situation on your home . . . " wrote R. Edward Forman, a local real estate sales manager with 10 years' experience.

Forman says he began buying and selling foreclosure properties for himself last year. He says he prefers to help a distressed homeowner sell a house, but if it's already too late for that, he steps in to buy it himself--all a perfectly legal process.

"In the midst of adversity it became obvious to me that the adversity itself created an opportunity," Forman says. "What really motivated me was my own loss of income" when the real estate market fell apart in the last two years.

If a home is rundown, Forman renovates and resells. Some he keeps as rental properties. "Obviously, with the number of foreclosures these days, you can afford to be picky."

Forman says that so far his purchases have been from people whose hard luck began long before the recession. In one such instance he bought a $44,000 Seat Pleasant house from an EPA secretary after it had gone to foreclosure.

Both say she signed the house over in exchange for his paying about $4,000 of her overdue bills and having the foreclosure removed from her credit record. She says Forman got four years of mortgage payments for almost nothing. Forman says he did the woman a favor by saving her credit.

"The house was a wreck. I let her stay in it until she found an apartment . . . " he says. "I'm not in this for the money only."