UnNews:Company cornering the market on 800 numbers

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19 April 2011

Cornering the market in toll-free phone numbers could set the nation's technology back a century.

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania -- A mysterious company here called PrimeTel has been quietly acquiring "800" toll-free telephone numbers. The company now owns about 21% of all America's 1-800 numbers. Telephone companies have set aside other blocks of toll-free numbers, including 1-888, 1-877, and 1-866, but PrimeTel has a "dominant share" of these as well.

So dialing 1-800-Chicago now reaches several busty women who say they have "big appetites" for sex and invite the caller to "pinch us and poke us." Despite lengthy research, this reporter could not determine whether any of these assertions was true. But the new use of the phone number did not seem to be a problem for any callers, at least compared to any of the other opportunities associated with Chicago.

However, it does seem to be a problem for government. Pennsylvania officials remember well what happened when the Hunt brothers cornered the market in silver. A spokesman for the FCC, David Fiske, says he owns a copy of Trading Places on DVD. "If these shady businessmen succeeded in buying up all America's toll-free phone numbers, they could charge any price they wanted," he says. "Eddie Murphy proved that conclusively with concentrated orange juice."

PrimeTel's strategy seems to be to acquire catchy phone numbers when their existing owner gives them up. For example, from the late 1980s to 2005, teens could call an AIDS prevention center in Kansas City and get advice from other teens. When that program ended, the number was rerouted and now is more nearly an advice line for catching AIDS. And the New York City fire prevention service, 1-800-FIRETIP, has been acquired by an operator with hot tips of a very different type.

Other victims are a Chicago inmate information service and a popular incest counseling service in rural Maine. These phone numbers were re-routed to sex services operated by a separate, shadowy company called Ring Me Up For Free Dot Com, which shares executives and office space with PrimeTel. The Republican Party printed an 800 number in a brochure that was likewise redirected to a sex service. But this was during Michael Steele's tenure as Party Chairman and no one batted an eye.

The FCC's Mr. Fiske suggests that Washington could prevent the embarrassment of being routed to a shady service, by requiring that anyone owning a toll-free number continue to operate the service forever.