Florida's attorney general is investigating whether Huntington Bancshares broke a state law against deceptive advertising.
To attract customers to its banks in central Florida, Huntington advertised free round-trip airline tickets to Hawaii or London.
The ads said new customers would get the tickets if they had a minimum of $50 in deposits and kept their accounts open at least 30 days. The promotion ran during the first week of November.
The catch, state officials said, was that tickets were given only to customers who booked reservations for lengthy visits in premium-priced hotels. The ads said "a hotel room purchase is required." State officials said that not fully disclosing these charges violated Florida law.
Rosalie Ceschi of Largo, Fla., jumped at the Huntington offer. But she said a travel agent working for the bank told her she would have to stay 10 nights in a $190-a-night hotel in Honolulu or a $300-a-night room in Maui. She complained to state officials.
Ms. Ceschi said she found the hotel prices steep and said the experience ruined her impression of the Columbus, Ohio-based bank.
"I really feel like, if this is the way they operate, it's not going to be my bank," she said.
Anthony Bateman of Hudson, Fla., called the promotion "a joke." Mr. Bateman said he travels between Tampa and London three or four times a year for much less than the $2,000 or so he estimated he would have to spend on a hotel in the Huntington deal.
Mr. Bateman, who plans to close his Huntington account, said he was also charged a $4 fee for an account that was supposed to be free.
Hillary Jeffers, a spokeswoman for Huntington, said the required hotel stay was noted in the ad.
The company "stands behind the offer," Ms. Jeffers said. "We certainly never intended to mislead any customer."
Huntington ran similar promotions during August and September in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and West Virginia. There were a "handful of complaints" in those states, Ms. Jeffers said, but "satisfied customers definitely outweighed the unhappy customers."
Florida officials said that is not the issue.
Spending $2,000 for a hotel "is not free," said E.J. "Buddy" Gissendanner 3d, an assistant attorney general in Tampa. "If it's not free, just say it."
Huntington, which entered Florida in 1987, doubled its size there in June with the acquisition of 60 Barnett Banks Inc. branches, mostly in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
It has $3.8 billion of Florida deposits, making it the seventh-biggest bank in the state. It gained more than 200,000 customers in the Barnett deal and has been working hard to attract more.
"I think they're trying to make their presence known," Mr. Gissendanner said. "We think they're a little too aggressive."
State action may depend on how many customers complain. Three complaints had come in by late Monday, Mr. Gissendanner said, but it's early, he said, since the promotion ran the first week of November and accounts had to be open for 30 days before free airfare could be claimed.
No fine or other penalty is imposable if a violation is found, but Huntington may be asked to reimburse the state for the cost of its probe. The attorney general may also require the company to promise in writing that it will not againt use similar ads.
"If you're going to use the word 'free,' it means free," Mr. Gissendanner said. "If not, you're obligated to say what it costs. We're thinking they didn't do that."