To woo customers away from merging competitors, Sanwa Bank California plans to reintroduce a free-checking offer.

The $8.2 billion-asset bank will waive fees through March 2001 on accounts opened this November.

The promotion follows a successful 60-day run that started in May. Under the earlier offer, Sanwa opened 9,200 checking accounts and 6,000 savings accounts.

Checking services normally cost $7 per month for customers who do not maintain a $750 minimum balance.

The bank typically charges $3 to savings accounts with less than $300 on deposit.

The Los Angeles-based bank, a subsidiary of Sanwa Bank Ltd. of Japan, expects to bring in 3,000 new accounts under the November campaign, said assistant vice president Michelle Esser.

Emboldened by the earlier promotion-it exceeded a projection of 5,200 new checking accounts-Sanwa hopes for a repeat.

Free checking "worked in our favor," Ms. Esser said. Customers are "tired of mergers-tired of changing checks."

This time, however, the bank will not use print and radio advertising to promote the accounts. Sanwa will rely on branch personnel to get the word out to customers who come to the bank for other services, such as business banking. Sanwa has 107 branches throughout California.

The goal of the campaign is to attract a larger retail audience for cross-sales. Sanwa wants to pitch other products such as mortgage loans to these customers, Ms. Esser said.

"It gives us more of a base to sell to," she added. Currently, the bank has 150,000 retail deposit accounts.

Free-checking promotions are not uncommon.

In July, Wells Fargo & Co. dropped a plan to impose fees on 164,000 customers who had been promised free checking for life by a predecessor bank.

The bank had planned to charge fees as high as $9 to accounts that did not maintain a $1,000 minimum balance.

Customers who opened the no-fee, no-minimum-balance accounts with Great American Bank of San Diego, which Wells bought in 1991, sued Wells to keep their no-fee status. Despite the bank's decision to remove the fees, the suit is still pending in state superior court in San Diego.

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