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MBS porn billing: are you being ripped off?

Internet-fee tactics 'dodgy, but not illegal'

We've been inundated with complaints from outraged readers about MBS' billing practices, but has it actually broken any consumer law?

When we see a spate of complaints in the PC Advisor forums, all about the same company, we know something isn't right and we need to investigate further. That's exactly what's happened over the past few weeks, with the company concerned – MBS (Micro Bill Systems) – cropping up in several threads.

More news: Readers' PCs crippled by MBS porn billing

It's all to do with the way that MBS tries to recover money, which it says is owed to its clients as a result of consumers accessing websites with monthly subscription fees.

MBS is a UK-based company, specialising in services to the internet industry. Among other things, the firm provides subscription management services to clients who operate sites that traditionally have problems collecting money – online gambling and sex sites, for instance.

How the system works

1: Someone visits a site that operates on a subscription basis. On the front page there are some images giving an indication of the site's content, and a prominent 'Get instant access now' button, above which are some lines of text stating that by clicking the button you are confirming you wish to receive a free three-day trial subscription to the website.

Unless you cancel within the trial period, you'll be billed quarterly, in advance, on a recurring subscription basis.

2: Click anywhere on those words and you'll see a full list of the terms and conditions. And they are worth a read, I assure you. Ignore the lot and click the button and you have a three-day trial membership to the site.

Bear in mind that you haven't been asked to provide any personal details,
credit card numbers, a billing address – nada. Yet you're accessing the content. Cancel your membership within three days and, according to MBS, that will be that.

3: Fail to cancel, however, and you might regret making that mouse click. Shortly after the three-day trial expires, a pop-up bill will appear on your desktop. You owe MBS £40 for your first quarter's membership.

If you do nothing, the bill will keep appearing at regular and decreasing intervals until eventually your PC will be virtually unusable. The bills are generated by software downloaded to your PC and there's nothing you can do about it – except pay up and cancel your subscription via MBS. They have identified your PC by its IP address.

Unfortunately, by clicking on that button you agreed to abide by a list of terms:

  • You agreed to download the MBS software
  • You agreed that MBS can use your hard drive and your bandwidth to "share out files and/or provide you with various files required to enable the company and/or MBS to administer the billing system"
  • You agreed that MBS may offer you new features in the future and may update the software on your drive
  • You agreed that to use the new features you may have to pay a fee
  • You agreed that the MBS billing software could download and install supplemental software at any time
  • You agreed that if you didn't pay your subscription, MBS could present you with so many pop-ups that, in its own words, you may lose the ability to use your computer until you have submitted payment

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