In the beginning, there were personalized checks. Then automated teller machines arrived on the scene. Now, buyer protection, the latest wrinkle in bank marketing, has come to the Washington area through two of its largest thrifts. Annandale-based Ameribanc Savings Bank introduced a buyer protection plan May 1, extending the warranty on products bought with its checks and replacing those products if they are lost, stolen or damaged.

The area's biggest thrift, Vienna-based Perpetual Savings Bank, went the same route one month later.

Both financial institutions launched extensive campaigns promoting the new service. Ameribanc promoted itself as the first local bank with the program and Perpetual, which operates in Maryland and the District as well as Virginia, claimed to be the first with the service in the broader metropolitan area.

"We really wanted to have something that would help us emphasize our checking account products and set us apart from the rest of the marketplace," said Richard Stark, senior vice president of retail banking at Ameribanc.

Perpetual spokeswoman Anne Kelley said her bank's program had two purposes. "A big strategy is to retain customers and get them to use their checking accounts more," Kelley said. "And then it's always a {goal} to attract new customers."

For the banks, the service is relatively inexpensive and simple to offer. Banks pay a small annual premium -- $1 per account for Ameribanc and 64 cents for Perpetual -- to an insurance company, and the company handles all claim requests.

The two programs extend product warranties for up to a year and replace products that are lost, stolen or damaged less than 90 days after they are purchased.

Jefferson National Bank, a smaller, Charlottesville-based institution that operates in southern Virginia, launched a similar "Protect-a-Purchase" program May 1.

"It's probably a good deal {for the banks} because consumers anticipate a greater benefit than the service will have to provide," said Reid Nagle, president of SNL Securities, a Charlottesville research and consulting firm. "It's more window-dressing than substance."

Nagle said most banks in New York and California already offer buyer protection in an effort to compete with credit card services such as American Express, which introduced similar programs several years ago.

He predicted that banks around the Washington area soon will adopt similar programs in an effort to maintain their share of an increasingly competitive market. "What's happening is banks and savings institutions find themselves competing in terms of services and perceptions of services," he said.

For Ameribanc and Perpetual, the programs are part of a general drive to increase retail purchases. Each thrift has been on the market for months, and a stronger retail base would make them more attractive acquisition candidates in a market overflowing with failed S&Ls.

Stark and Kelley said each bank's promotion of its new service is easily the biggest ad campaign launched this year.

"There's no question that we have been reserving our market expenditures to be able to come forth with a program that emphasizes our redirection" toward checking services, Stark said.

Ameribanc's campaign has included print ads and radio spots broadcast during the peak "drive time" morning and evening hours when commuters are tuned to their favorite stations.

In addition to direct mail, Kelley said, Perpetual is using print and television ads that emphasize its early entrance into the buyer protection market. For example: "In the 1960s, Perpetual introduced banking by mail. In the 1970s, automatic tellers. In the 1980s, banking by phone. And now, the kind of buyer protection credit card holders enjoy ... Are you still banking with someone else?"

Bank officials said customer response to the new service was positive but that it was too early to tell its success.

"There's a certain skepticism that I think is natural," Stark said. "Some people are still thinking there must be a catch."