Wells Fargo & Co. has been sued by a senior-citizen customer who does not want to lose his free checking account.

The class action, filed last week in San Diego Superior Court, accused the San Francisco-based banking company of breaking a promise to honor free-checking terms that customers had with institutions acquired by Wells.

"This is a classic bait and switch," said James V. Parziale, an attorney representing Fred M. Stiesberg, the plaintiff.

Wells Fargo, which on Monday announced plans to merge with Norwest Corp., could face damages of up to $18 million, Mr. Parziale said.

Since the merger announcement, Wells is facing more scrutiny from consumer groups. Consumers Union reacted to the merger news by urging the planned new institution to avoid Wells' "anti-consumer" practices.

In the class action, Mr. Stiesberg, 85, said he had had an account at Great American Bank of San Diego, which was bought by Wells Fargo in 1991. The account charged no fee, regardless of the balance. Great American had promised his checking would be free for life, Mr. Stiesberg said.

However, he was told in a May 28, 1998, letter from Wells that he would have to maintain a $1,000 minimum balance or sign up for direct deposit of Social Security checks in order to avoid a $9 monthly fee.

"Back in December 1990, I was told my account would have no monthly service fees," Mr. Stiesberg said, "and that is my basis for saying, 'A promise is a promise.'"

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Kim Kellogg acknowledged that the company has honored free checking account terms for customers who had opened them at several banks it acquired, such as First Interstate Bancorp.

But Wells decided to begin charging fees on some of these accounts after an annual pricing review, she added. At the end of May, 150,000 customers got letters telling them of the change; roughly 10% are senior citizens.

If a customer can show he or she was promised a free account for life, the status of their checking accounts will not change, she said.

"We will honor any promise that an account would always be free," Ms. Kellogg said. But others could face changes. "Like any business, we have the right to change the pricing at any time," the spokeswoman said.

Consumers Union is arguing that the new Wells Fargo, which would have $191 billion of assets, should declare a moratorium on new or increased fees and minimum balance requirements.

Wells' pricing practices "should cause concern for Norwest customers, too, because they may face new fees" after the merger, Consumers Union staff attorney Earl Lui said. He said the lawsuit will create "even more negative publicity" for Wells Fargo.

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