A customer's lawsuit accuses Wells Fargo & Co. of processing checks in a way that unfairly triggers overdraft fees.

According to the lawsuit, the San Francisco-based bank processes the largest checks first when it has multiple checks written by a single customer. This increases the likelihood that the smaller checks will bounce, resulting in overdraft or returned-check fees, according to the plaintiff, San Mateo County, Calif., resident Fred Sturm.

"There is a group of Wells Fargo checking account customers who have been victimized by this," said Pierce Gore, an attorney with the San Francisco firm of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, which represents Mr. Sturm. The law firm is seeking class-action status in the case, which was filed July 31 in San Francisco County Superior Court.

According to his lawyer, Mr. Sturm had written several checks on different days drawing from an account containing enough money to cover some but not all the checks. The checks arrived at Wells Fargo on the same day, but Mr. Strum claims the bank processed the larger amounts first.

"He was immediately kicked into overdraft status, so instead of paying one or two overdraft fees, he wound up paying four or five," Mr. Gore said.

Overdraft fees at Wells Fargo, which is merging with Norwest Corp., are $15 to $28.

Wells spokesman Mark Marymee called the allegation "inaccurate and very misleading," adding that the bank tries to avoid charging for overdrafts.

"We definitely don't automatically go to the highest-priced check first," he said. "We try to cover as many items as we can."

Regardless, customers should not write checks unless they can be covered, he added. "Like most banks, we encourage our customers to stay within their account balances."

An industry representative said there is no standard for check- processing order. Rather, it is a function of technology. Some banks process checks in numerical order, some clear the smallest first, others the biggest, said American Bankers Association spokeswoman Janet Eissenstat.

"If you look at a mortgage check versus a check written to the dry cleaners, it's the mortgage that you really don't want to see bounce," she said.

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