Freddie Mac says it has developed behavior models that distinguish a late-paying mortgage borrower with a temporary cash crunch from one in the throes of serious financial trouble.

The models, called Payment Prospector, can help lenders focus collection efforts on borrowers whose loan payment histories and loan-to-value ratios suggest they won't catch up with payments, and could lose their homes to foreclosure, said Paul T. Peterson, senior vice president of Freddie Mac's servicer division.

Currently, mortgage servicers mostly cannot differentiate the two kinds of late payers, and routinely prod thousands of borrowers to mail their checks when they would have paid up anyway.

"We don't have any way to distinguish who's who, so we ask them to call everybody," Mr. Peterson said. "Under this system, they'll actually be able much sooner in the process to start counseling the borrower."

Indeed, the agency hopes the use of the system will reduce sharply the number of foreclosures, as lenders intervene early on with alternative payment plans to help delinquent borrowers hang on to their homes, Mr. Peterson said. Or, if borrowers can't afford a mortgage anymore, lenders can facilitate an early sale of the home, even at a loss, he said.

In so doing, lenders can substitute Freddie's statistical tool for the intimate customer knowledge of small-town bankers to help consumers better manage household finances, Mr. Peterson said.

Freddie Mac said it planned to waive some servicing guidelines for users of Payment Prospector.

First Union Mortgage Corp. is the first lender to try out the system. Freddie Mac said some other lenders would use it early next year, and the system would be widely available later in 1997.

Both Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., and its larger rival, Fannie Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Association, have recently urged lenders to speed up the foreclosure process, as a way to cut costs. Reducing the number of foreclosures would further cut costs.

Payment Prospector eventually will be usable in conjunction with Workout Prospector, another program also in the pilot stage. The program determines the best workout options and strategies for borrowers in or near default.

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