Bank One, Columbus, bought collateral protection insurance for a borrower who let her own car insurance lapse. The bank now faces civil racketeering charges.

Citibank, South Dakota, charged California residents fees for paying their credit card bills late. It's now battling charges that it violated state consumer protection laws.

These are just two of hundreds of class-action suits filed against banks in the last few years by a plaintiffs' bar that some say sees the financial services sector as its next juicy target.

The suits are coming on every front - from credit card fees and collateral protection insurance to flood insurance.

While no exact estimate of the cost of this litigation is available, several lawyers put the price tag in the billions of dollars.

"This is a serious problem," said Alan Kaplinsky, a partner at the Philadelphia law firm of Ballard, Spahr, Andrews & Ingersoll. "It becomes a distraction for management and it can become very expensive to defend."

It also is a problem that is likely to grow. Mr. Kaplinsky said more lawyers are entering this field since Congress passed a bill last year making it harder to win securities fraud suits.

Lawyers for consumers said bankers are to blame for this legal morass. "It is easy to blame the attorneys for bringing these cases while ignoring the greed of bankers," said Kathleen Keest, a lawyer at National Consumer Law Center.

Bankers impose fees without bothering to check if they are allowed by law or the loan agreements, said Daniel A. Edelman, who has sued more than 300 banks since 1986.

"If banks spend a small amount of money and time on compliance, they won't ever hear from me," said Mr. Edelman, a partner at Chicago's Edelman & Combs and dean of the consumer law bar. "There are a lot of banks out there I haven't sued and probably never will. They don't approach the business saying let's squeeze every profit out of every area."

But banking lawyers don't buy that explanation. They said plaintiffs' lawyers will find any excuse to sue.

Banks can do little to protect themselves, Mr. Kaplinsky said. "You cannot isolate yourself totally from exposure without shutting down very profitable lines of business," he said.

The only hope is to examine what practices got other banks in trouble, then try to find limited remedies that can protect the institutions from similar claims, he said.

The problem with trying to protect yourself is that consumer advocates have at least a dozen different areas to attack, including:

*Insurance - Consumers are suing banks for failing to disclose commissions, allowing flood insurance policies to lapse, coercing borrowers to buy credit life insurance, and forgetting to notify customers that they can cancel private mortgage insurance once they have enought equity in their houses.

*Credit card fees - Banks are accused of charging higher fees than state law permits. This issue is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

*Bounced-check fees - Lawyers have charged that some fees are unconscionably high.

*Loan-broker compensation - In these cases, loan brokers are accused of violating the Truth in Lending Act by not disclosing the bonus they receive for convincing consumers to pay higher rates.

There is some good news - litigation now appears concentrated in only a handful of states. Unfortunately, some of those states are big ones: Illinois, California, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

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