First Carolina Bank and Carolina First Bank. Different order but same words - similar enough to prompt a threat of legal action.

Carolina First Bank - at $1.4 billion of assets the largest independent bank in South Carolina - told First Carolina Bank, a Charlotte, N.C., start-up planning to open within a month - to change its name immediately.

"The perplexing part of it is that we had issued an offering circular a year ago and there have been articles about us, so you'll have to ask them why they did this now," said Pressley A. Ridgill, First Carolina's chief financial officer.

The two banks operate in different markets, but Carolina First isn't taking any chances that customers in the region would get confused. It's also very possible Carolina First could eventually branch into the Charlotte area, officials of the South Carolina bank said.

Mr. Ridgill said First Carolina had designed its logo and stationery and was about to order signs and other materials with the name when it received a letter from Carolina First about two weeks ago, firmly requesting that the start-up drop the name.

"We are very sensitive of someone using a similar name who might not provide the same level of service as we do," said William S. Hummers 3d, executive vice president of Greenville-based Carolina First.

In case the tiny start-up thinks Carolina First might be bluffing, it need only look at the bank's track record. Carolina First has blocked the use of similar-sounding names about six times since 1989, Mr. Hummers said.

What's more, it's currently suing another First Carolina Bank - this one a thrift in Walterboro, S.C. - over its name. The $70 million-asset thrift, however, is not rolling over. The case is expected to go to court by the end of this month, officials said. Officials of the Charlotte start-up are watching the case and said they expect to make a decision on their situation within two weeks.

Carolina First, by the way, has been on both sides of this issue. The Greenville bank agreed to change the name of its new mutual fund series, Carolina Compass Portfolio, after Compass Bancshares of Birmingham, Ala., argued the name might confuse Compass customers.

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