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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 Prime Tel or National A-1, although federal authorities have expressed renewed interest lately in companies that handle toll-free numbers.
Bill Quimby, whose company, Toll Free Numbers.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 Prime Tel 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.
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Dial the same number now and you get a recording of giggling women offering to talk dirty to you. 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 .99 per minute.
Records obtained by The Associated Press show that over the past 13 years, a little-known Philadelphia company called Prime Tel Communications has quietly gained control over nearly a quarter of all the 1-800 numbers in the U. and Canada, often by grabbing them the moment they are relinquished by previous users.
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. That gives it the same power to reserve and assign unused toll-free numbers as big phone companies with millions of customers.
Prime Tel Founded in 1995, Prime Tel is one of around 400 companies registered as toll-free service providers for the U. But Prime Tel appears to be amassing numbers predominantly for one closely related partner, National A-1.