A scam aimed at duping homeowners out of their mortgage loan payments has resurfaced, this time in central Virginia, and has prompted the Mortgage Bankers Association of America to issue a nationwide alert warning borrowers.

Although reports of other mortgage-payment scams turn up occasionally, millions of dollars worth of mortgages quite legitimately change hands between lenders every day.

In recent years, lenders have transferred 2 million to 2.5 million home loans worth $150 billion to $200 billion annually to other lenders, said Robert M. O'Toole, a senior staff vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

However, a borrower who fails to detect a fraudulent notice stands to lose the mortgage payment money. Some lenders will also charge late fees on the missing money and start foreclosure proceedings if they are unaware of the circumstances.

The borrower may also have to straighten out the matter with a credit report company, if the lender promptly reports late payments. Borrowers should become suspicious of a rogue loan transfer when a "good-bye" notice from the current lender does not precede a "welcome" letter from the new processor, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Such a practice is "pretty universally followed," O'Toole said. The good-bye letter should also identify a contact person and a toll-free number for borrowers to call with questions.

At the end of August, homeowners in Petersburg and Colonial Heights received letters purportedly from the mortgage payment processing firm of William E. Scott & Co.

The fictitious notice informed homeowners that the Scott company had taken over administration of their loans and directed them to send future payments to the firm at its Jacksonville, N.C., address.

Apparently, only a handful of borrowers were targeted in the scheme, said Donald J. Atkins, manager of servicing operations for Richmond-based Sovran Mortgage Corp. One of Sovran's customers received the fabricated notification. The case remains "under investigation," according to the Richmond postal inspector's office.

A similar scam turned up three years ago in Colorado. In that case, about 3,000 homeowners in the Denver area received a letter instructing borrowers to reroute their payments to a phony mortgage processor called Jefferson Financial Services, a subsidiary of the equally fictitious Chesley Savings and Loan.

A measure introduced by Rep. John LaFalce (D-N.Y.) would require loan sellers to inform borrowers of a loan transfer at least 15 days before the first payment is due to the new processor. The requirement will become federal law if the federal housing bill now pending in Congress passes this month.

A handful of states, including Maryland, New York and Minnesota, already require lenders to notify borrowers of loan transfers.

But the good-bye letter does not constitute a fail-safe method to protect oneself from a mortgage transfer scam, said Richard Thomas, the Denver postal inspector who investigated the Colorado case.

"Someday a crook is going to figure out {he needs} to send two letters," one from a contrived loan seller as well as a fictitious loan buyer, he said.

Moreover, personal experience has taught Thomas that not all loans sellers bother to send a farewell letter. No such letter accompanied any of the three legitimate transfers of his mortgage in the three years that he has lived in Colorado, he said.

Lenders who sell mortgages infrequently may also be unaware of the prevailing industry transfer practices, Atkins said.

Thomas's best advice to borrowers is to contact the current lender to verify the transaction any time a transfer notice is received from a buyer or seller.

Consequently, Thomas said, borrowers need to keep abreast of who currently owns their mortgage -- some of which are resold several times -- in order to confirm a sale. Atkins, however, said he worries that lenders will become overwhelmed by borrower inquiries every time a batch of loans changes hands.

Sovran, he noted, owns 170,000 home loans and probably buys or sells 15,000 to 20,000 mortgages a year.

"It has not gotten to the point where I would recommend verifying the accuracy of the good-bye letter. Think of all the millions of dollars of loans that have been sold and the small number of scams that have been perpetrated," he said.

The Colorado case was never solved, Thomas said. In order to catch the con artist, Thomas said he obtained a court order to intercept the payments and then staked out the post office box where they were mailed.

The trap was foiled, however, when the swindler apparently was tipped off by local television reports disclosing that authorities had discovered the fraud, he said. Over the course of four days, Thomas said, some $80,000 worth of mortgage payments poured into the dummy lender's mailbox.

All of the money, he said, was returned to the duped borrowers. Mail fraud carries a five-year prison term for every mailing.

Thomas said he doubts the same people are behind the Colorado and the Virginia scams.

"It is not a terribly original idea," he said. In the Colorado case, borrower names and addresses were apparently gleaned from newspaper reports of home sale closings.

In the Virginia incident, however, authorities believe the aspiring thief used publicly accessible county property records for the information.

The Jacksonville, N.C., address given as the Scott company's turned out to be the location of a self-storage warehouse offering a post office box rental service. Calls to the customer service telephone number given in the letter went unanswered.