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

Taking advantage of 'silly men'

Apart from the complaints voiced on our forum, we've been flooded with emails from people who claim to have had no idea they were agreeing to such a list of conditions – or even that they were agreeing to pay just under £120 a year for access to a website.

One such complaint from a forum member told how her 77-year-old father was plagued by MBS bills. She said the ordeal "has really been very upsetting for him and my mum". Only when she obtained a police log number for the call she made to report the matter did MBS agree to cancel the bill and invalidate the account it had created.

Another forum member wrote to us about her husband's experience. He admitted that he had accessed a sex site, but had no idea that he was agreeing to an expensive commitment.

His wife supports that view and said: "It is our view that MBS, if it wants to be viewed as reputable in its operations, needs to make sure that the financial consequences of going through on to partner sites are clearly and obviously set out onscreen – not hidden in terms and conditions – and that it should not resort to tactics that border upon blackmail in order to get its bills paid.

"The choice of words MBS has used to defend itself seems to confirm our suspicion that it is playing upon the weaknesses of silly men to make money."

Another regular forum member voiced much the same concern when he asked: "Assuming MBS is complying with legislation, why is it that it uses such seemingly underhand and objectionable methods to obtain payment?"

It isn't just PC Advisor readers and PCAdvisor.co.uk members who are experiencing problems with MBS either, as a recent article for the Guardian Unlimited site shows.

What can be done?

We contacted MBS via both the email addresses displayed on its site, wanting to hear what it had to say in the face of the complaints we've received. Many weeks passed until, shortly before we went to press, MBS finally called.

By the time you read this, we hope MBS' strongarm (though probably not illegal) practices will have changed somewhat. The company warns people about the consequences of entering its clients' sites, but the warnings are not prominent enough.

Anyone with experience of the business will know that people who visit sex
websites tend to ignore the small print in their eagerness to access the content. And many of them will be understandably reluctant to admit what they've done when presented with the bill.

None of this will come as a surprise to the people who run MBS, but we do expect them to be upfront with their clients' customers. Loud and clear from the start, on the home page of the site. Let's see a warning stating: "If you enter this site you agree to pay a monthly subscription, and MBS will download some software to your computer that will make sure that you honour the agreement."

Then, and only then, can they look our angry readers in the eye. Current UK law says that contract terms must be 'fair' and in our opinion their terms are not. Some people might say that they're not being open enough at the point of sale, and that's exactly the sort of thing that undermines consumer confidence in internet trading.