Continued from page 1

“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.”

Helein said the raid last fall was not aimed at PrimeTel. National A-1 and its owners have a variety of business enterprises headquartered at the same address, including a website sometimes used by prostitutes to advertise their services.

According to a database maintained by an industry organization, PrimeTel was listed as the administrator of record for at least 1,667,000 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 codes, like 888 and 866, giving it several million numbers overall.

Sex isn’t the only business. Some numbers reach advertisements for a mortgage brokerage based in New Jersey. Others promote a dieting website or a travel reservation service. Those instances appear to be outnumbered by ones in which callers reach a phone-sex solicitation.

Critics of the company say it isn’t the sex that bothers them, but the acquisition of so many numbers.

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.

A spokesman for the FCC, David Fiske, would not comment on whether the agency had ever examined PrimeTel’s activities but said the commission is actively enforcing rules on number hoarding.

PrimeTel appears to have benefited by grabbing numbers associated with famous names, like 1-800-Beatles, or numbers that have recently been canceled but are still advertised widely.

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 same thing happened to the Cook County Jail in Chicago when it canceled its toll-free inmate information line, and to rape counseling hotlines in Maine and New Mexico.

The Republican National Committee once printed a fundraising mailer with a toll-free calling code and was publicly embarrassed when the calls began ringing in to one of National A-1’s chat lines.

It happened to Glenn Noyes, too. Shortly after the toll-free number for his auto repair business in Edgewater, Md., was mistakenly canceled by his phone company, it began redirecting customers to an erotic chat service called “Intimate Encounters.”

“It was pretty embarrassing,” Noyes said. “I had people walking around wearing T-shirts with that number.”

Story Continues →