Two of the Northeast's largest banking companies have been actively soliciting installment loan customers with direct-mail promotions.

Fleet Financial Group in Boston has mailed more than one million checks in its Loan Check program since the end of October, three-fourths of them to noncustomers throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

The checks, ranging from $3,000 to $10,000, promise customers easy cash to "spruce up your home," "take care of your child's tuition," and "pay taxes," according to the letter accompanying them.

Chase Manhattan Corp. in New York began a nationwide pilot program in September, mailing checks of either $5,000 or $7,500 to individuals for its Chase One-Step Loan program. Spokeswoman Judith Miller would not disclose how many checks have been mailed so far.

In each case, check recipients are given two choices: void the document or deposit it. Depositors instantly become installment loan customers. The loans have 48-month repayment terms.

Fleet began its "live-check" mailings in March 1996, issuing 59,000 checks for $3,000 to $7,500. Back then, Fleet targeted its customer base almost exclusively, said a spokesman.

The company has run the promotion six times since then, gradually expanding its scope beyond Fleet's customer base and doubling or tripling the number of checks sent out each time as the bank gained experience, said James Schepker, the Fleet spokesman.

Overall, Fleet has mailed 4.5 million checks since the program began, Mr. Schepker said. He added that the promotion has so far been "very successful," but he would not disclose response or delinquency rates for "competitive reasons."

Consultants who follow trends in consumer banking said the promotions help banking companies generate assets and fee income and are especially effective around the yearend holiday season.

"It's a very aggressive way to promote credit," said Les Dinkin, managing principal at NBW Consulting Group in Westport, Conn. "It has very high impulse usage."

Other consultants noted, however, that the promotions have high risks. "Given the problems there are now with unsecured credit, I wouldn't do it," said Christine Clifford, a consultant at Wholesale Access in Columbia, Md.

Other companies have tried the tactic in the past and had big credit problems. Signet Banking Corp. in Richmond, Va., was forced to write off many of the loans it made through a similar promotion in the second quarter of 1995.

Some banking companies that once made the offers have canceled their programs. First Chicago NBD Corp.'s predecessor, First Chicago Corp., made similar offers two years ago but has discontinued them since its 1995 merger with Detroit-based NBD Corp., said a spokesman.

Chase and Fleet are plying tricky waters, analysts said, as credit writeoffs this year have climbed. Loans to consumers that were 30 to 89 days past due reached 2.24% of the $557.7 billion of such loans outstanding at June 30, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. This rate was 2.13% at June 30, 1996.

Credit card delinquencies were the primary culprit, reaching 2.48% of the $225.3 billion of outstanding card loans at June 30, according to the FDIC data. But unsecured loans, such as those promoted by Chase and Fleet, had a 2.08% delinquency rate on the $332.5 billion of loans outstanding, according to the FDIC. In June 1996, unsecured-loan delinquencies were 1.97% of the total.

More recent quarterly data will not be available for several weeks, according to an agency spokesman.

Credit quality continues to be a major concern of Wall Street analysts, but some market watchers said the problem has become more manageable. "The credit picture is not good," said Thomas Theurkauf, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., "but there appears to have been a stabilization in the most recent quarter."

Analysts said the most recent "live check" promotions could be a tactic to beef up consumer lending, which they described as sluggish, particularly in the Northeast.

"They are moving from a defense to an offense," said Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Michael Mayo, referring to Fleet's promotion. "They are using data base technology to identify the next best product that will appeal to customers."

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