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UK ISP Freeserve has gone one step further in alienating its customers by sending out hundreds of thousands of emails demanding payment within seven days or risk being cut off Freeserve Time altogether.

An estimated 250,000 people received an email beginning: "According to our records, the following amount is outstanding on your account: £xx.xx. If the amount shown above remains outstanding, you should note that under the terms of your agreement with us you are required to pay by direct debit and if we are unable to collect the amounts due by direct debit, the debt will be forwarded to an external agency for manual collection and may result in the Service being suspended or cancelled."

Except a number of readers have contacted us to tell us that they actually set up direct debit accounts with Freeserve and so would like to know why they are being threatened with bailiffs for less than £20. A number of them contacted Freeserve and were informed that Freeserve Time's billing system had fallen over and had been unable to access direct debit accounts for at least three months. This was confirmed with reference to readers' bank statements.

It would appear there has been a complete breakdown and so a mass (hysterical) email has been sent out to claim all outstanding debts. One reader, on calling Freeserve for information, was told to send a copy of his bank statement proving what he had paid (to a different address) as the company had no record of who had paid what when. People are, unsurprisingly, not very happy about the situation.

We gave Freeserve a call and outlined the main problems. It confirmed an email demanding money had been sent out but insisted it had not been sent out by Freeserve, rather network supplier Energis Communications. A statement is apparently "being prepared" and confirmation was needed for all other points.

Yesterday, Freeserve annoyed hundreds more customers by cutting them off for "abusing" the service. We received an email from one of the 700 original people pulled off last month. In it, he claimed that in response to a letter sent by him to the Freeserve board, he was informed that anyone using the service for more than 340 hours in August had been pulled off.

As he points out, this equates to 11 hours per day, and not the 17 hours per day that Freeserve was claiming. A Freeserve spokeswoman told us that those pulled off had been the subject of "careful investigations" but she would look into the situation.

All this looks extremely bad for Freeserve. It also begs the question of how much cash and liquid assets Freeserve has at its disposal. Is Energis dragging out what it can? Can Freeserve not afford to run at a loss any longer? Has funding dried up? We'll wait and see. ®

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