Toll Free, departmental Communication, purchasing phone numbers, toll free humor

Over 20 years ago, I worked for a company in Totowa, NJ.  The company transported body parts to operating rooms, provided up-to-the-minute arrival information.  This was done with the Nextel Push-To-Talk cellular technology when it was brand new to the market.  One day, the latest advertising brochure was dropped on my desk; I gave it a quick glance over and there it was, 1-866-LOGISTIC!  The company didn’t own that number! I walked past the CEO’s Secretary and quietly entered his office and informed him of the marketing error. What followed was the entrance of the marketing staff; heads were going to roll!  100,000 advertising packets were mailed out to be received up and down the east coast … The CEO yelled at me to locate the number and buy it.  I inquired to the CEO "what are you willing to spend to obtain the number??"

This began a sleuthing adventure - what company owned the number and more importantly what would it cost to purchase it?

After 3 days of phone calls and following leads (this was pre- security days, no pin codes and 2FA didn’t exist yet) I found that it was owned by a beeper/paging company.  The number had no meaning (866-564-4784 = 866-LOGISTIc) to the paging company after I explained what had occurred.  The person who would be issued that pager would not be happy by the number of pages received and they would not be for them… The purchase price was $500…

So how did this industry of “vanity” begin?

Toll-free service was introduced by AT&T in 1966 (US intrastate) and 1967 (US interstate) as an alternative to operator-assisted collect calling.  This Inward Wide Area Telephone Service (InWATS) allowed calls to be made directly from anywhere in a predefined area by dialing the prefix 1‑800- and a seven-digit number.

The system initially provided no support for Automatic Number Identification (Caller ID) and no record to the quantity of calls, instead requiring subscribers to obtain expensive fixed-rate lines which included some number of hours of inbound calling from a "band" of one or several U.S. states or Canadian provinces. Early toll-free 800 calling lacked the complex routing features offered with modern toll-free service. After competitive carriers could compete with AT&T in establishing toll-free service, the three-digit exchange following the 800 prefixes was linked to a specific destination carrier and area code; the number itself corresponded to specific telephone switching offices and trunk groups. All calls went to one central destination; there was no means to place a toll-free call to another country.

Despite its limitations (and the relatively high cost of long distance during the 1970-1990), the system was adequate for the needs of large volume users such as hotels, chains, airlines, and cars for hire firms which used it to build a truly national presence.

AT&T engineer Roy P. Weber from Bridgewater, New Jersey patented a 'Data Base Communication Call Processing Method' which was deployed by AT&T in 1982. The called number was an index into a database, allowing a 'Toll-Free Call' or '800 Call' to be directed anywhere. This feature and other advances made it possible for AT&T marketing analyst Dodge Cepeda from Bedminster, New Jersey to propose the introduction of providing 800 Toll-Free Service to small and medium-size business customers on a nationwide basis

A toll-free vanity number is a custom number or a mnemonic which is easy to remember; it spells and means something, or it contains an easily recognized numeric pattern. An easily remembered number has branding value as a direct response tool and is extremely popular, during the mid-1970’s the carriers quickly realized they could charge a hefty fee for specialty/vanity toll free number (ex: 800-FLOWERS). 

There is a fee structure is for the vanity number each month and a per minute charge for each call received.  A non-vanity toll free number in the 1980’s ranged from 59.95 to $500 and the rate per minute to have the call ring in your business was 6-10 cents a minute.  Compare the costs to today – an average AT&T toll free number per month is $4.95 and the rate per minute is around .014.  The most sought vanity numbers can be purchased on the open market (more of this later in the article>)

What are the Toll-Free Area Codes?
The toll-free number area codes in use today: 800, 833, 844, 855, 866, 877, and 888 and 833 was the last one added in May 2017

 Do any of the toll-free area codes operate beyond the continental U.S.?

844 is a multi-country area code rea code that operates in the North American Numbering Plan: USA, Canada, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guam, Jamaica, Monserrat, North Mariana.

Do Toll Free numbers still have value?     The answer is, “it depends.”
From the user cost savings perspective – NO, not really.  When calls were 6+ cents a minute (25 cents per minute from a payphone) if I could call a business and they paid for my inquiry – yes… there was a value of “wanting my business” and a savings to my pocketbook.
Now with free unlimited cellular minutes or per minute rates on landlines at just above a penny a minute…these free calls aren’t “necessary” as a value save for the consumer.

However, a vanity number is brand building, it unifies messaging and broadens the company exposure. 

  • 1-800-WALGREENS
  • 1-888-BEST-BUY
  • 1-888-NEW-HOME
  • 1-800- PET-MEDS
  • 1-877-USA-ROOF
  • 1-800-GOFEDEX

  Toll Free numbers may be catchy, thus remembered without being written down:

  • 1-800-HURT - NOW
  • 1-800-GIANT-MEN
  • 1-800-GOT-JUNK

Toll Free Numbers may just have a single word in their number to help users remember their purpose:

Seminole Casino in Brighton – 866-2- CASINO

Jenna Choctaw Pines Casino – 855-638- LUCK

 Today Vanity numbers don’t need to be toll-free and can be purchased on the open market.  (8/11/2021)                   

  • 279-999-9999 – is listed for $75,000
  • 320-222-2222 is available for $50,000
  • 203-888-0000 is listed for $15,000
  • 206-ABC-DEFG – is listed for $15,000
  • 209-REALTOR- is listed for $15,000

All advertising has a price. A vanity number can be considered a visual logo, it can be spoken or sung (used in a jingle), spells a name for easy remembrance, or perform a service, a quick direct connection. The value of using a vanity number (toll free or not) is a strategic business decision and should be considered carefully based upon the “reach” goals of your business.

At Corcentric we specialize in sourcing initiatives/data analytics across many business sectors (including Marketing) within an organization to reduce costs/streamline efficiencies and reduce manual labor.  For additional information please reach out:

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Tami Wankoff - Procurement Consultant

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