When we see a spate of complaints in our online forum, all about the same company, and all posted in a fairly short space of time, I know that something isn’t right, and we need to investigate further. That’s exactly what has happened over the past few weeks, and the company concerned – Micro Bill Systems – has cropped up in several forum threads. The first MBS cry for 'help' dates from last autumn, while the most recent appeared two weeks ago.

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 that work on a monthly subscription basis.

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

This is how the system works. Someone visits a site that operates on a subscription basis – a typical example is mysexworld.com. 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 telling you that if you click the button you are confirming you wish to receive a free three-day trial subscription to the website, and that unless you cancel within the trial period you will be billed quarterly in advance on a recurring subscription basis.

Click anywhere on those words and you’ll see a full list of the terms and conditions to which you’ll agree if you hit that instant access button, and they are worth a read, I assure you. Ignore the lot, and click the button, and you have a three-day trial membership of the site. Bear in mind that you haven’t been asked to provide any personal details, no credit card number, no billing address, nothing whatsoever. You’re into the site, and have access to the content. Cancel your ‘membership’ within those three days and according to MBS that will be that – your membership is terminated.

Fail to cancel however and you might regret ever making that single mouse click. Shortly after the three-day trial expires you’ll see a pop-up bill appear on your computer’s desktop, telling you that you owe MBS £39.99 for your first quarter’s membership. If you do nothing the bill will keep appearing at regular and ever-increasing intervals until eventually your computer will be virtually unusable. The bills are being generated by software which has downloaded to your computer, and there’s nothing you can do about it, except pay up and cancel your subscription via MBS. They identify your computer by its IP address, which was logged when you entered the website involved.

By clicking that button you agreed to abide by a list of terms which is eye-opening, to say the least. You agreed to download the MBS billing software, and you agreed that MBS can use your computer’s hard drive and your internet 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 in order to use the new features you may have to pay a fee. You also agreed that the MBS software could download and install supplemental software at any time. To cap it all, you agreed that if you didn’t pay your subscription MBS could present you with so many pop-up bills that in their words “you may lose the ability to use your computer until you have submitted payment”.

Apart from the complaints voiced on our forum I’ve been flooded with emails from people who say they 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 sex site. One such complaint from a forum member told how her 77-year-old father was plagued by MBS bills “which 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 they had created.

Another forum member wrote to me about her husband’s experience. He admitted that he had accessed a site called sexxxxpassport, but said that he had no idea that he was agreeing to an expensive commitment; he said it wasn’t made clear enough at the outset. His wife supports that view, and said “It is our view that MBS, if they want to be viewed as reputable in their operations, need to make sure that the financial consequences of going through onto partner sites are clearly and obviously set out on screen, not hidden in terms and conditions, and that they should not resort to tactics which border upon blackmail in order to get their ‘bills’ paid. The choice of words that they have used to defend themselves and their actions seems to confirm our suspicion that they are playing upon the weaknesses of silly men to make money. “

Another regular forum member voiced much the same concern when he asked “….assuming they (MBS) are complying with all legislation, why is it that they use such seemingly underhand and objectionable methods to obtain payment?”

It isn’t just PC Advisor members who are experiencing problems with MBS either, as today’s article in The Guardian shows.

Concerned to present a balanced picture I contacted MBS via both of the email addresses they display on their site - I wanted to hear what they had to say in the face of the complaints we’ve received. At the time of going to press I have received no response, or even an acknowledgment of my request.

I want to make it plain that as far as I have been able to determine MBS are not in any way acting illegally – they warn people about the consequences of entering their clients’ sites. The problem is that the warnings are not prominent enough. Anyone with any experience of the business will know that people who visit sex sites will tend to ignore small print in their eagerness to access the content, and they’re often understandably reluctant to admit to what they’ve done later on, when presented with the bill.

None of that will come as a surprise to the people who run MBS, and I say this to them – be upfront with your client’s customers, if you have something to say do it loud and clear, and do it right at the start, on the homepage of the site. Let’s see a warning saying “if you enter the site you agree to pay a monthly subscription, and we’re going to download some software to your computer to make sure you honour the agreement.”

Then you can look our angry readers in the eye. Current UK law says that contract terms must be ‘fair’, and in my opinion your terms aren’t. Some people might say that you’re not being open enough at the point of sale, and that’s the kind of thing that undermines consumer confidence in internet trading.

For more feedback from PC Advisor readers and to discuss the issue further, see this thread.