St. Petersburg Times Online: Floridian:

Really wrong number

In the world of 800 numbers, why is a wrong number so often a phone sex line? Coincidence?

By BILL DURYEA

St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


A woman called a toll-free number this week, hoping to buy tickets to the Florida Orchestra's masterworks series.

"You want it bad?" the voice purred. "Come get it good."

No, she didn't want it bad. She wanted Beethoven.

Turns out the Florida Orchestra mistakenly provided the St. Petersburg Times with a number that belonged to a phone sex line. The Times should have checked it but didn't, leading to the woman's complaint.

Taken as an isolated incident, the mix-up is little more than a publicity director's (and newspaper editor's) bad day.

But it was only last July that Voicestream Wireless debuted its new phone service in Florida and experienced a similar glitch.

Voicestream ran large ads in the state's major newspapers, prominently displaying spokeswoman Jamie Lee Curtis, the company slogan "Get more," and a toll-free number. Potential subscribers got more, all right -- a smoky "Hello, honey" and an invitation to "lie back and listen."

A month later the Virginia state police were chagrined to learn the phone company had mistakenly listed the Richmond division as an 800 number, not a number in the 804 area code. That one wrong digit meant callers missed the sergeant's desk and hit the sexpot jackpot.

"What are the chances that being a number off could end up being a sex line?" asked state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.

It would seem the chances are pretty good.

The impression one gets from these and a dozen similar anecdotes from around the country is that the moral, workaday world is but a small outpost of decency in the wilderness of the adult entertainment industry. Let your dialing finger stray on the number pad, and suddenly you've entered a world of racy blandishments for "hot talk" with "lonely housewives in your hometown."

Of course, these stories could be a function of newspaper prurience (reporters wouldn't write about a misprint that directed callers to a florist). Or there could be "no rhyme or reason" for the phenomenon, as Mike Balmoris, spokesman for the Federal Communication Commission's common carrier bureau, says.

In reality, there is a sensible economic explanation, one that has to do with the feverishly lucrative coupling of two industries: adult entertainment and toll-free phone service.

No one knows for certain how many of the 23,093,928 toll-free numbers that were in use in the United States as of 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 24 were devoted to phone sex, or any other type of business for that matter. Customer information is proprietary. But experts in the toll-free industry do not hesitate to characterize the adult industry's share of toll-free numbers as large. Very large.

"I've heard there's a person in Florida that has 300,000 numbers," says Judith Oppenheimer, the founder of ICB, a New York City-based consultancy on issues related to the toll-free industry.

"One of the reasons there are so many phone sex numbers is that the sex industry was a forerunner in the toll-free industry," says Christopher Rugh, chief executive officer of Worldwide Telegraph, a Los Angeles company that does "search and recovery" of toll-free numbers. "Same with the Internet. Who made money on the Internet first? The sex industry."

The first toll-free numbers were introduced by AT&T in 1967. There were 7-million toll-free calls made that year. Now an unlimited number of phone companies offer customers four different toll-free prefixes (800, 888, 877 and 866, with 855 on the way). Each year, 34-billion toll-free calls are made, resulting in more than $200-billion in goods and services sold, Rugh says.

Though the Federal Communications Commission's official position is that toll-free numbers are fungible, one having no greater value than another, businesses know that toll-free numbers are not created equal. True, all toll-free numbers "are ringing cash registers," as Oppenheimer says, but she points out that an 800 number will make that register ring faster than any of the other toll-free prefixes: 888, 877 or 866.

"When you think tissue, you think Kleenex. Soda, you think Coke," Oppenheimer says. "Toll-free, you think 800."

This means competition for 800 numbers is fierce, particularly for "vanity" numbers that spell out a business' name, for instance. Demand is so intense that numbers are routinely sold and traded in violation of FCC regulations, says Oppenheimer.

Typically, an individual or small business needing a toll-free number would call the local phone company. That company, known officially as a Resp Org (responsible organization), would then use sophisticated computer technology to search the database of toll-free numbers known as SMS/800 (for service management system).

But anyone can become a Resp Org after paying for training and certification. Some phone-sex companies are Resp Orgs, for example. Those that aren't pay to have sweeps conducted to capture any toll-free number that has been returned to the available pool. Because the sweeps run 24 hours a day, numbers are gobbled up with the speed of a cockroach chasing crumbs -- "in 2 to 3 seconds," Oppenheimer says.

This explains how a number recently abandoned by a rape crisis hotline in Maine can the next day offer callers the chance to "go live one-on-one" with sexy girls (this actually happened).

Some in the industry say there are unscrupulous database sweepers who will get hold of a mistakenly discarded toll-free number (one that is being used by a clothing retailer, for instance) and turn it into a phone sex line until the panicked company agrees to pay a ransom to buy it back.

Just as often, though, human error is to blame for the confusion. In Sarasota, a number for a GTE customer support line was eight months out of date in the telephone book. In the meantime, it had been acquired by a phone-sex line.

GTE customers complained, but no one ever heard from the owner of the sex line. The adult entertainment industry, unlike other businesses, doesn't mind wrong numbers. Indeed, it thrives on the confusion.

Sex line operators know something about human nature -- namely that a certain number of people who accidentally stray from the straight and narrow don't mind paying 69 cents a minute to stay lost in the wilderness for a while.