Beware: a growing number of con artists are preying on business owners by posing as loan brokers or quasi venture capitalists, charging large fees up front for their services and then simply disappearing. Shirley Rooker, the president of watchdog group Call for Action, points to four red flags:

Unreasonable guarantees: "If every other bank has turned you down for a loan, ask yourself -- and the broker -- exactly how this broker can guarantee you."

O ut-of-state operations: "Scam artists often approach targets from out of state, because it's that much harder to pursue them legally so long as a victim has to convince two state jurisdictions there's been a fraud."

Up-front fees: "If a company you're not completely familiar with asks you to pay a significant fee in advance in order to get a loan, don't do it before you check the company out completely," says Rooker. That means getting its latest annual report and a written statement of its promised services and fee structure.

Unverifiable references: "The latest trick is to use call forwarding so that victims think they're calling bank or client references and instead just get bounced back to the lender itself. If you can't physically visit references as well as the loan broker's operations, don't trust them."

Rooker also advises capital-hungry company builders not to be satisfied with a clear record from the lender's local Better Business Bureau. "All that tells you is that no complaints have been filed," she says. For more invaluable tips, order Scams, Schemes and Deceptive Offers by sending a self-addressed legal-size envelope to Call for Action, 3400 Idaho Ave. NW, Suite 101, Washington, DC 20016.

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