COLUMBIA — The state NAACP is preparing to join a national lawsuit against lenders accused of steering blacks toward higher mortgage rates, an issue believed to be more prevalent in the Charleston-North Charleston area than anywhere else in the country.

Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina conference, said Wednesday the state conference is gathering information now to join the suit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Los Angeles about six months ago.

"These practices that exist, particularly negative practices toward the economic empowerment of African-Americans, have existed throughout history in South Carolina," Randolph said.

The lawsuit is aimed at stopping what the NAACP perceives as racial discrimination in lending practices, identifying an industry ombudsman and returning payments to borrowers who were unjustly charged higher rates, Randolph said.

Blacks are estimated to be between 31 percent and 34 percent more likely to be put in a higher cost mortgage than similar white borrowers, according to data from 2004 to 2006 that the NAACP collected under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.

The racial disparity only highlights a larger trend, said state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston. He began studying the issue this summer after the National Community Reinvestment Coalition released a report that showed the region ranks highest in the nation for the difference between what minorities and whites pay for mortgage loans.

The report, which examined data collected by the U.S. Federal Reserve, found that black borrowers in 171 metropolitan areas in 2005 were at least twice as likely as whites to have expensive loans. When comparing only blacks and whites in the study, the Charleston area ranks eighth; it ranks 31st when comparing only whites and Hispanics.

Ford said as many whites as blacks, and in some places more whites, have attended recent forums for victims of predatory lending that he helped host across the state.

"The whole country is suffering," he said. "A lot of time minorities are red-lined and profiled by ZIP code, but the biggest problem is how to be fair to everyone."

Ford co-sponsored state legislation that outlines various strategies to address predatory lending, but the specifics must still be determined.

David Krahn, president of the South Carolina Mortgage Brokers Association and a broker with First Rate Mortgage in North Charleston, said consumers are encouraged to shop around for mortgage rates and should check to make sure they are dealing with licensed brokers, who are required to complete ethics training every two years, among other standards.

While studies showing a disparity have value, they also have shortcomings, Krahn said. So many variables go into a mortgage rate, including credit scores and money down, that making true side-by-side comparisons is difficult.

State Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston, said homeowners who worry that they might have gotten a bad deal should reach out for help.

"It's a major problem, no doubt about it," he said. "We have a climate here in South Carolina that really sets the tone."