Wachovia Corp., the owner of First Union and Wachovia banks, in partnership with a nonprofit foundation backed by some of the nation's biggest home equity lenders, this week launched another effort to help District consumers "borrow smart" and avoid predatory lending.

The "BorrowSmart" campaign, which kicked off locally Thursday, joins Washington area versions of Freddie Mac's "Don't Borrow Trouble" campaign, AARP's nationwide education and advocacy campaign (motto "They Didn't Tell Me I Could Lose My Home") and similar programs backed by federal and District regulators and consumer groups.

All the efforts are aimed at protecting homeowners from unscrupulous lenders, brokers, home improvement contractors or real estate agents who convince the unwary to take out home loans they can't afford or don't understand. When the borrowers can't pay the loans, they lose the homes to foreclosure.

BorrowSmart, however, has a couple of twists. Its focus is on providing consumer advice on home equity loans and second mortgages, not on loans to buy a house. And its principal organizers, the BorrowSmart Public Education Foundation, are companies that cater to people with blemished credit, lenders that some critics say are most likely to charge vulnerable borrowers excessive rates or fees.

BorrowSmart acting executive director, Jeffrey Zeltzer, who is also president of the major trade association of what are known as "subprime" lenders, the National Home Equity Mortgage Association, has stated repeatedly that most lenders are reputable and that the whole industry has been tarred by a few "bad actors."

Zeltzer this week said the foundation is committed to working with lender partners and local counseling groups to provide education and prevent predatory refinance loans. Wachovia was also a sponsor of BorrowSmart campaigns launched earlier this year in the Midwest and North Carolina.

Mike Rizer, a senior loan officer at Wachovia who sits on the BorrowSmart board, said the campaign is "totally independent" of its lender backers. It maintains a Web site containing advice and links to legal and counseling help (www.borrowsmart.org) and offers direct access to counseling through local community groups. In Washington, the Near Northeast Community Improvement Corp., at 1326 Florida Ave NE, is handling the counseling.

Zeltzer said BorrowSmart is an attempt to follow up on the counseling available to first-time low- or moderate-income home buyers. Homeowners, he said, are "being bombarded with solicitations to refinance." Even new buyers are inundated "within a few weeks" by offers of home equity loans, he said.

Wayne Hodges, who runs Near Northeast's counseling program, said this week that he reviewed BorrowSmart's Web site and materials before it started up last year and has "no problem with the information provided to the consumer." The site has been lauded by some housing experts for checking with community groups and simplifying its advice.

Hodges said District residents, particularly low-income homeowners, need help. A new D.C. law against predatory lending "isn't doing much," he said. "We're still getting a lot of people coming in. . . . When they bought their houses, they cost only $25,000, $30,000. Now the houses are worth $200,000 or $300,000, and the owners are being taken to the cleaners" through predatory refinances.