SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Garry Bowie was so worried about incurring late charges on his Providian credit card bills that he sent his payments by overnight mail. Still, he was hit with a hefty late charge three times.

Bowie, 38, of Long Beach, said Tuesday that he repeatedly complained and demanded the charges be refunded. ``Of course, they never were refunded,'' he said.

Bowie, who has joined a class-action suit against Providian Financial Corp., is one of many customers claiming they were overcharged by the nation's ninth-largest credit card company.

In addition to the lawsuit filed last week in San Francisco Superior Court, the company has caught the attention of the city District Attorney's Office, which is looking into allegations of misleading and high-pressure sales tactics.

``We are investigating complaints against the company, and that's pretty much where it stands right now,'' the D.A.'s spokesman, Clarence Johnson, said Tuesday.

San Francisco-based Providian specializes in issuing credit cards to people other lenders dismiss, including those who previously had trouble paying their bills, older people who never had credit cards before and widowed or divorced people without their own credit histories.

Oakland's Better Business Bureau has received 850 complaints, many over add-on products such as credit protection or auto club memberships. Other complaints concern late fees and allegedly hidden charges.

From 1996 to 1998, Providian's revenues from late and over-limit charges, add-on products, and other customer fees grew 470 percent to $703.5 million, while total revenues grew only 120 percent, to $2.4 billion.

In a statement Tuesday, Providian said a recently announced enhanced customer service program should address the concerns.

The ``Providian Guarantee'' will reverse late fees and cancel sales of add-on products if consumers hadn't intended to buy them. The company also hired a firm to review its payment processing procedures.

``One of the greatest strengths of this company is that it has always learned from its customers,'' Providian chairman and CEO Shailesh Mehta said last week. ``We are taking advantage of this opportunity to reinforce our satisfaction guarantee, and to further ensure that our customers find value in our products.''

Attorney Phillip A. Schuman says he experienced Providian's practices firsthand. He applied for a credit card, but upon receiving it found that he had been charged an additional fee for credit protection _ a service he told the company he never accepted.

``They said, `Unless you have this credit protection, you can't have the credit card,''' the San Diego lawyer said. ``So I said, `Well, then I don't want this credit card.'''

The experience caught Schuman's interest, and he began looking into the matter. When he sent out an inquiry on the Internet, he got nearly 2,000 e-mail responses.

``Probably 90 percent of the people that complained to me said they were charged with late fees, regardless of whether they paid their bill on time,'' he said.

Schuman joined forces with the San Francisco law firm of Girard and Green in filing the class-action complaint, which accuses Providian of unfair, unlawful and fraudulent business practices, and false advertising. The lawsuit asks that any unlawful charges be refunded to the customer.

``These people get stuck. They just plain get stuck,'' Schuman said. ``That's why I decided to get involved with it.''