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iBill blames 'extraordinary growth'

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Subscribers to thousands of web sites may face excess credit card charges due to technical difficulties at iBill, the online sex industry's favourite billing company.

Problems last week took iBill's client database offline for two days, leaving site owners without access to customer records and account administration.

The meltdown was blamed on "extraordinary growth" and the resultant heavy load on iBill's systems. In an e-mail sent to webmasters the company said it was bringing forward a $320,000 investment in hardware and software upgrades.

Although the client database was restored on Saturday morning, one feature has remained unavailable: Subscriptions cannot be cancelled.

Customers trying to cancel a subscription through iBill's customer service site receive the unhelpful message "Error reading rebill information!". Site owners who handle their own customer service are also unable to issue cancel commands.

This is in apparent contrast to iBill's motto of "Where Consumers Come First", as the financial interests of site owners have clearly been prioritised. A notice posted on iBill's Commerce Management Interface page states:

"CMI has been back up and running since 7:30pm Friday, October 12th. The 'Cancel Rebill Subscribers' feature, however, has been temporarily disabled. Please rest assured that transactions are still being processed through our system."

So while new sign-ups are being accepted, a small number of customers may find unwanted charges on their credit cards. If a subscription is due for renewal during the current downtime, and the customer is unable to cancel their account, iBill will automatically charge them again.

The greatest risk is to people who have taken out trial memberships. These generally cost between $3 and $10 for three, five or seven days, after which time the trial becomes a full membership costing anything from $15 to $35 per month. Someone who signed up for a trial period last week could find that they are unable to cancel before it automatically upgrades to a full subscription costing ten times as much.

iBill's decision to suspend subs cancellations will have particular impact on the customers of adult web sites (where it is a favoured payment mechanism), as the services are fairly expensive, and the price difference between trial and full memberships is generally quite large.

An iBill client services rep said today that cancellations should be available again by Tuesday. She also gave assurances that refunds issued for unwanted charges would not show up as a "black mark" against a customer's credit card, which under normal circumstances could lead to the card being declined in future.

According to the rep, however, subscribers are still able to manually cancel accounts through iBill's customer service site. But tests yesterday and today showed that this is not the case. ®

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