(MONEY Magazine) – Roughly 13,500 American couples and single people will make a bold choice this year: They will become parents by means of intercountry adoption. About a third will adopt from China, another third from Russia and the rest from countries as disparate as Colombia, South Korea and Romania. No matter the nation, the adopters will work with agencies and attorneys in the U.S. and abroad; spend $12,000 to $25,000, depending on the country from which they adopt; and navigate the precarious seas of foreign and U.S. immigration policies to realize their most precious of dreams. And most of the time--as was true for Bill Bloomfield and Margery Stegman of Lexington, Mass., who adopted son Ross, now 4, from Russia in 1995--the process will go fairly smoothly. "It was not terribly burdensome," says Bloomfield. "The agency stuff was reasonable, and the outcome was 100% positive."

Sometimes, however, the process is anything but smooth and the outcome nothing short of tragic. Because so much money and emotion is involved, and because the regulations governing foreign adoptions are so varied and complex, serious problems--some involving outright fraud--can crop up.

"Wanting to adopt a child makes you deaf," cautions William Pierce, president of the watchdog National Council for Adoption (202-328-1200). "People just don't listen." But in adoption generally, and in intercountry adoptions particularly, you must. Here's what you need to know:

Almost all intercountry adoptions today involve an agency in the U.S. that connects with an agency, attorney or government office overseas to select and refer a child to prospective parents. The U.S. agency you choose may charge a single all-inclusive fee that covers the cost of your home study, a donation of up to $5,000 for the overseas organization that has cared for the child you're adopting, and a fee of $2,000 to $4,000 for in-country legal costs. Or the charges may be billed separately.

You'll also be required to get adoption approval by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, so you can apply for your child's visa. This simple but sometimes nettlesome process, which requires an FBI fingerprint clearance, can take six weeks to four months and involve fees totaling $355.

After all the paperwork is done and you have been paired with a child, you'll usually travel to the child's country for a one- to four-week stay to complete the necessary legalities. (A few countries, notably South Korea, do not require adoptive parents to go to the country to pick up their child.) Figure on travel expenses of $1,000 to $8,000, depending on the country on which you've settled.

Among the keys to making an overseas adoption work for you: Choose an agency carefully. Investigate the agency thoroughly before signing any paper or turning over any money. Run the agency's name past its local Better Business Bureau and the one in your area as well, check it out with the department in its home state (and your state too) that licenses adoption agencies, and see whether serious complaints have been filed against the agency with the attorney general's office both in your state and its home state.

Such digging, for instance, would have turned up no fewer than 50 serious grievances in New York State alone against a Pennsylvania- and New Jersey-based outfit known as Today's Adoption Agency. The agency is now under a preliminary injunction by the New York State Supreme Court that prohibits it from accepting any new clients from New York or taking additional fees from current in-state customers. At issue: allegations, according to the court, that company officials "have charged fees in excess of those outlined in their agreements, have failed to place children and have misrepresented the length of time necessary to complete an adoption."

Learn all you can. Since adoption laws vary so much from country to country and state to state, you must fully familiarize yourself with the rules. Your agency will be your best source of information. But also be sure to talk to at least half a dozen parents who have recently adopted from the country in which you're interested. Don't hesitate to call U.S. consulates and embassies in the countries you're considering. Check to see whether officials there know the reputations of the U.S. agency you are using as well as those of any in-country sources you are employing (such as lawyers, agencies and orphanages). You can also get valuable information about adoption in more than 60 countries from the State Department's Office of Children's Issues (202-736-7000).

Keep your emotions in check. Approach your dealings with the agency you choose as a business transaction. You are paying for services rendered, and you deserve the best. "Use your head, not just your heart," says Dawn Kennedy, a California litigator who adopted daughter Julia, now 4, from Moldova in 1995. "And don't engage an agency by telephone or fax," she says. "Sit across the table and look them in the eye, so you can see who you're dealing with."

Get it in writing. Foreign adoptions are costly. Avoid sticker shock by getting a full accounting in writing of everything you'll be expected to pay and when, as well as what services you will receive in return.

Watch out for red flags. Among the most common: an agency that promises to slice through red tape and cut short the usual 12- to 18-month process for consummating a foreign adoption. Watch out too for agencies or attorneys that play on your emotions by showing you videos or photographs of a child who purportedly has been selected for you before you have signed a contract, completed your home study or paid any fees. You could be getting suckered by a classic bait and switch.

--Michael Robbins