Ralph Nader has taken another poke at First Union Corp., saying the pending acquisition of Signet Banking Corp. seems likely to reduce service to Signet customers.

In a letter last month to First Union chairman Edward E. Crutchfield, the consumer activist criticized the $142.9 billion-asset company for an assortment of retail practices. He called upon it to take a leadership role in changing policies and "erasing the anti-consumer image of today's dominant banking corporations."

Mr. Nader asserted in his letter that "banks are risking a major backlash-a true consumer revolt against arbitrary, unfair, costly, and unresponsive policies."

He asked whether Signet customers would wind up paying higher fees for bounced checks and for phone calls to telebanking centers, and whether noncustomers at Signet branches would be charged for check cashing, as they are at First Union branches.

First Union has not responded to Mr. Nader, who heads the Washington- based Center for Study of Responsive Law. But Laurie Hedrick, a spokeswoman for the banking company, said Mr. Crutchfield planned to write a personal response. She also said assertions about anti-consumer practices were unfounded. "With a bigger institution come better and more options. If you want to avoid fees, you can," said Ms. Hedrick.

Mr. Nader sent a similar letter to Mr. Crutchfield earlier this year, raising concerns about the company's policy of fingerprinting noncustomers who cash checks.

Last month Mr. Nader also sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno saying NationsBank Corp.'s deal to buy Barnett Banks Inc. raises urgent antitrust questions. He called upon the Justice Department to develop new guidelines to deal with the "vociferous appetites of the megabanks."

According to Mr. Nader, the large mergers taking place in the industry today give banking companies such market dominance that they can raise fees and cut service with little recourse available to the consumer.

"Ralph has been raising a lot of questions about the interstate banks and their fee structures and how they're handling their acquisitions," said Jake Lewis, a spokes-man for the Center for Study of Responsive Law.

"There is some growing consumer concern that may be slowly boiling up," Mr. Lewis said. "These interstate operations need to be watched closely. The fees are getting out of hand. And neither the regulators nor Congress appear to be doing anything that even suggests any kind of slowdown."

Fritz Elmendorf, a spokesman for the Consumer Bankers Association, a trade group for large retail banks, said that rising fees are the result of large investments made by banking companies in new technology to give customers more convenient delivery channels.

"That is a side of it I don't think Ralph Nader has acknowledged," he said. He also pointed out that many large banks such as First Union, have introduced free consumer account products that are based on the use of these alternative delivery options.

"There is some payoff to the consumers," said Mr. Elmendorf. "Yes, there is a growing public resentment about bank fees. But the pot is not about to boil over."

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