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Porn company amassing toll-free numbers, redirecting callers

For years, teenagers across the U.S. could call a toll-free hotline if they had embarrassing questions about AIDS and safe sex. Dial the same number now and you get a recording of giggling women offering to talk dirty to you if you enter your credit card number.

Those naughty misdials, and countless others like them, appear to be no accident.

Records obtained by The Associated Press show that over the past 13 years, a little-known Philadelphia company called PrimeTel Communications has quietly gained control over nearly a quarter of all the 1-800 numbers in the U.S. and Canada, often by grabbing them the moment they are relinquished by previous users. As of March, it administered more 800 numbers than any other company, including Verizon and AT&T.

And many, if not most, of those 1.7 million numbers appear to be used for one thing: redirecting callers to a phone-sex service.

Dial 1-800-Chicago and instead of reaching a tourism hotline for the Windy City, you will hear a woman offering "one-on-one talk with a nasty girl" for $2.99 per minute. A similar thing happens if you punch in the initial digits of 1-800-Metallica, 1-800-Cadillac, 1-800-Minolta, 1-800-Cameras, 1-800-Worship or 1-800-Whirlpool.

All those numbers contain messages redirecting callers to erotic chat lines operated by National A-1 Advertising, a company that shares an office building with PrimeTel, has common ownership and lists many of the same people as executives or business contacts.

"I guess enough people go for it that it makes business sense," said Aelea Christofferson, president of ATL Communications, another company that specializes in toll-free services. Capturing callers who have reached the wrong number -- whether because they punched an incorrect digit or dialed a number without realizing it had changed hands -- is a "big new industry," she said.

Founded in 1995, PrimeTel is one of around 400 companies registered as toll-free service providers for the U.S. and Canada. That gives it the same power to reserve and assign unused toll-free numbers as big phone companies with millions of customers. But PrimeTel appears to be amassing numbers predominantly for one closely related partner, National A-1.

There is nothing illegal about using toll-free phone services to promote adult entertainment, and callers aren't charged unless they supply their credit card information.

Over the years, though, PrimeTel has been hit with lawsuits and complaints alleging that it is violating federal rules banning toll-free service providers from hoarding digits. Federal Communications Commission rules say that "routing multiple toll-free numbers to a single toll-free subscriber" is usually considered hoarding.

The FCC has never taken formal action against PrimeTel or National A-1, although federal authorities have expressed renewed interest lately in companies that handle toll-free numbers. In the fall, authorities sent subpoenas to several, including PrimeTel, asking for information on how they acquire numbers and why.

Richard Cohen, the man listed on many government records as the top executive at both PrimeTel and National A-1, declined interview requests. A lawyer for both companies, Charles Helein, would not discuss their business dealings in detail but said PrimeTel isn't breaking any rules or engaging in prohibited practices such as selling numbers or obtaining ones it doesn't intend to use.

"They are extremely sensitive to the FCC. They wouldn't have them if they didn't need them," Helein said of PrimeTel's huge pool of numbers. He said the company's large share hasn't caused any shortages: "Everybody's got all the numbers they need."

According to a database maintained by an industry organization, PrimeTel was listed as the administrator of record for at least 1.66 million out of around 7.87 million active 800 numbers as of this March. Industry experts said PrimeTel also holds a dominant share of numbers with other toll-free area codes, like 888 and 866, giving it several million numbers overall.

Bill Quimby, whose company, TollFreeNumbers.com, specializes in helping businesses obtain easy-to-remember digits to connect with customers, said it can be a challenge to find a good match because PrimeTel has gobbled up such an outsized share of the supply.

"They started by getting numbers for phone sex, then getting good numbers in general, then they started taking all phone numbers," he said.

From the late 1980s until around 2005, teenagers who dialed the national hotline used by Teens Teaching AIDS Prevention would reach a call center in Kansas City, Mo., where other youths were waiting to answer questions about the disease. When that program ended, the number was soon routed to one of National A-1's sex lines. But the AIDS hotline number is still publicized by public health groups.

When New York City's Fire Department relinquished its toll-free fire safety hotline a few years ago because of an administrative slip-up, PrimeTel grabbed it the moment it became available. Soon enough, 1-800-FIRETIP was ringing into one of National A-1's phone-sex lines.

The key to PrimeTel's business is its access to the entity that controls the assignment of toll-free numbers, called the 800 Service Management System. Numbers are available on a first-come, first-served basis at a cost of about 9.6 cents per month. When a customer is done using a number, it is supposed to go back into the pool for use by someone else.

FCC rules expressly ban service providers from reserving a number unless they have a genuine customer lined up to use it. Speculating in numbers is banned. They are considered public resources that may not be bought or sold. The big phone companies that supply toll-free numbers make their money not by selling the number itself but by providing telephone service.

But there are also companies that are illegally buying and selling the numbers, and they are a hot commodity, sometimes even available on eBay.

Such numbers are so highly sought-after that several companies have built powerful computer systems that search the database every day, looking for digits of potential value. Numbers can be reserved as quickly as 95 milliseconds after they are released by former users.

Helein said PrimeTel has been the target of complaints from other industry players who are "jealous" of the company's computer systems.

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