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For an elderly person with few assets, a reverse mortgage can be a lifesaver: It enables cash-poor retirees to tap equity in their house for living expenses, home repairs or health care needs. If you’re 62 or older, reverse mortgages allow you to borrow against the value of your home and not repay the loan until you sell the house, move out or die. If the amount owed is more than the value of the house, the lender eats the difference. If it's less, you (or your heirs) keep what's left over after paying off the loan. In the meantime, the loan provides income, which you can take as a lump sum, monthly payout or line of credit drawn on as needed.

But make no mistake: Reverse mortgages, which come with high fees and hefty interest charges, are a costly option and often sold by aggressive salespeople who push inappropriate financial products on vulnerable seniors. That’s why Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) held hearings Monday in St. Louis on reverse mortgages. A year and a half ago, Sen. McCaskill began investigating problems associated with reverse mortgages, including predatory lending, aggressive marketing and the potential risks to the federal government -- which insures 90% of reverse mortgage loans. Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan earlier this month said reverse mortgages bear a striking similarity to the risky sub-prime mortgages that got so many Americans in financial hot water. The Federal Housing Administration estimates it may lose $800 million from insuring these loans in the next fiscal year.

Yet the number of people getting reverse mortgages keeps rising. Even as home values are falling (leaving seniors with less equity to tap), more than 112,000 reverse mortgage loans were made in 2008, up from about 22,000 in 2003, according to the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association. Monthly reverse mortgage loan volume is setting records too, with nearly 9,000 reverse mortgages made in May.

My colleague Walter Updegrave wrote about the problems with reverse mortgages last year, spelling out how greedy salespeople not only persuade seniors to take out high-commission reverse mortgages, but also convince them to spend the proceeds on high-priced financial products such annuities, boosting their commissions even more.

Retiree advocates at AARP say that predatory lenders are also attempting to get seniors to use proceeds of their reverse mortgage to buy expensive long-term-care insurance. But in most cases, it makes more sense for seniors to use the payout for actual long-term care, not a hard-to-use insurance policy.

If you are considering taking out a reverse mortgage or have a parent or family member who is, don’t fall for a pitch from a salesman who cares more about a lucrative commission than determining whether a reverse mortgage makes sense for you. To learn more about reverse mortgages, check out resources at AARP and HUD.

Do you know anyone who is considering a reverse mortgage or has had a negative experience taking out a reverse mortgage? Tell us about that experience.