Why You Shouldn't Dial 1-800-COLLECT, and Other Phone Number Oddities
Whether landline or mobile, the phone system is littered with weird, unused telephone numbers that aren't meant for your ears. But if you want, you can give 'em a call—you might stumble upon something vaguely poetic.
Bell Atlantic's Command Center in 1999. Image: Porter Gifford/Getty
A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.
NYNEX hasn't been a going concern since Smash Mouth was first telling us to walk on the sun.
(You might know it under its current post-merger name, Verizon.)
But that didn't stop me the other night from dialing up a message on my Google Hangouts window with an automated request from a NYNEX operator that I deposit five cents or my phone call will be terminated. (I couldn't do it. I didn't have a coin slot in my laptop, though I'm sure a nickel might fit in my SD port.)
This was an unusual circumstance of me dialing up a specific number with an odd area code and testing my luck. These sort of weird phone "test numbers" are all over the place. You just have to know where to look.
And it turns that now is a good time to look, because phone-based automation is currently in the news, thanks to Twilio.
The company is currently on a stock-market tear, with its stock price increasing by 92 percent in its opening day about two weeks ago, and the stock currently nearing all-time highs. (As of this writing, a price of $37.39, more than double its $15/share IPO price.
Not bad for a company that allows programmers to make and receive phone calls and text messages through an API service. Also not bad, considering the thing the company was previously best known for besides its stock price was Callin' Oates, a dial-a-song Hall and Oates hotline created by a non-technical Twilio employee. It's still going strong five years later, over at (719) 26-OATES.
Callin' Oates may be the most normal number we'll discuss today.
The phone number with the best pronunciation you can find
"Fishing in a mountain stream is my idea of a good time."
"Serve the hot rum to the tired heroes."
If you dial (858) 651-5050, you'll hear what sounds like the most unusual poem ever produced. It's a series of phrases, recited by both male and female speakers, that sound a little too… well, perfect. It's as if the words were chosen from random novels, less for how much they make sense and more about how well each individual sentence flows together.
If you're feeling ambitious and want to hear some weirdly soothing sentences on your phone, call (858) 651-5050
And you'd be right. Because these sentences were basically decided upon to highlight the nuances of speech. These phrases—there are dozens of them—were chosen because they were phonetically balanced, and therefore should be recognizable and understandable in many audio conditions.
The sentences, colloquially called the "Harvard Sentences" and first introduced by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 1969 as the "IEEE Recommended Practice for Speech Quality Measurements," have roots in World War II, when Harvard scientists at the school's Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory helped to test different kinds of noises for wartime military communications.
Listen to (858) 651-5050 and be soothed.
These phrases, which can be viewed here, have been updated periodically over the years to reflect modern sensibilities. They generally follow a specific pattern—largely single syllables, with one or two multi-syllable words.
Sarah Zhang, who wrote an excellent piece on the phenomenon for Gizmodo last year, notes that Harvard researchers focused on the audio testing capabilities of the sentences specifically designed sentences that could be misheard in poor audio conditions.
The sentences are deliberately simple and short—monosyllabic words punctuated by exactly one two syllable word sentence. Some garbled version of the sentences would be played on tape, and volunteers attempted to make sense of what they heard. The idea was to test how much a person could mishear before they lost the meaning of a sentence.
So why is there this number just hanging out there, with some random Harvard Sentences being spouted off at all times of day? Well, it's an easy way to test your mobile phone quality—the "can you hear me now" guys at Verizon and other companies rely on these things to ensure the signal quality is strong.
This number is just one of many test numbers that you'll find hanging around, and they tend to exist to help phone companies make your service better.
I discovered this number through a testing tool provided by T-Mobile, and it's pretty much the most poetic, automated thing I've ever heard.
So, if you're feeling ambitious and want to hear some weirdly soothing sentences on your phone, give it a call at (858) 651-5050. As the Harvard Sentences would put it, "Open your book to the first page."
Five other bizarre numbers that'll have you geeking out on your phone
- (800) 444-4444: Perhaps the easiest number you'll ever dial, this MCI-controlled phone number is perhaps the most prominent example of an "automatic number announcement circuit," or ANAC number. These numbers, which are generally well-guarded by phone providers, are designed to repeat back to you the number you're calling from.
- (570) 387-0000 "Thank you for calling Bell Atlantic. Due to an emergency condition, we are operating with a reduced staff, and you may experience delay." The emergency condition, of course, is that Bell Atlantic merged first with NYNEX in 1997 and then GTE to create Verizon back in 2000.
- (845) 354-9912: This would be a standard "call cannot be completed as dialed" number, if not for the fact that the message is about 25 percent faster than normal and fading in and out. It's one of the many odd numbers you'll find on Moo.net.
- (914) 737-9938: This Westchester County, New York phone number is basically worth dialing for the unusually hilarious message: "This a CPTA announcement test. Uh, I don't know what it's supposed to say; I'm not that concerned with it. So if anyone gets this just just disregard it, k, and hang up."
- (700) 555-4141: This is a rare example of the 700 area code, which landline phone providers use to offer company-specific services to consumers. (It doesn't work on cell phones or VoIP lines.) This specific number, however, has an interesting utility for phone owners: It tells you who your current long-distance provider is, which comes in handy in figuring out whether you've been "slammed" by a long-distance provider.
1-800-COLLECT, 1-800-CALL-ATT, 10-10-220, and the mass-marketed super-numbers
These days, you can't watch an episode of anything without stumbling into an ad for a fantasy sports service like FanDuel or DraftKings.
But if you remember the 90s and early 2000s, you might have felt a wave of deja vu the first time you saw those ads. Not because fantasy sports were so awesome in the 90s, but because we had been through this whole mass-saturation thing before regarding a relatively narrow product with a very wide audience.
Yeah, they went there.
The phone numbers 10-10-220, 1-800-COLLECT, and 1-800-CALL-ATT were inescapable as advertising icons during the 90s and early 2000s. These services, designed to help save money on various aspects of landline phone calls (10-10-220 was a workaround for high-cost long-distance calling; the other two, services for cheaper collect calls), utilized major stars for their numerous ads.
Mr. T was a notable shill for the WorldCom-owned 1-800-COLLECT, once starring in an ad with a before-he-was-famous Aaron Paul. AT&T's 1-800-CALL-ATT, meanwhile, turned David Arquette into the most famous person doing television ads for a couple of years.
And 10-10-220? That service, owned by WorldCom subsidiary Telecom USA, brought us the sight of Alf having a conversation with Terry Bradshaw.
All of these services started getting aggressively promoted basically because they were services that made these companies a ton of freaking money, and were specifically useful during the decade-long period between the decline of long-distance calling and the rise of cell phones. In fact, when the Wall Street Journal wrote about the phenomenon in 2001, 36 percent of teenagers already had a mobile device of some kind, meaning that the services were already facing an existential threat.
Another problem with the numbers is that people occasionally have fat fingers and dial the wrong number, putting in 1-800-CLLL-ATT or 1-800-COLLCCT. As is common nowadays with some URLs, scam artists saw an opportunity to make money off of your bad luck. The problem was serious enough that the FCC had to offer a warning to consumers about the risks of collect-call misdials.
You get connected to the party you wished to call, but the phone company that connects you is not the one you thought you were using. Instead, it is a company that secured 800 numbers similar to well-known ones, likely hoping that you might accidentally misdial your intended number. If this happens, you are probably unaware you are using a different phone carrier than the one you intended to use because you don't know you misdialed. Often, the company won't identify itself to you or the person receiving the collect call before connecting the call.
These days, though, the real risks come from using the services you once saw on TV.
That's right. 1-800-COLLECT, 1-800-CALL-ATT, and 10-10-220 are still around, and they've not gotten less expensive with time.
As a result, your collect-call subjects could find themselves paying $1.49 per minute with a $13.50 service charge if you use 1-800-CALL-ATT. That's bad, but not as 1-800-COLLECT, which charges a $10.63 connection fee, along with a $3.99-per-minute charge for an in-state payphone call from Virginia.
The company's website still promotes its long history of ads with The Simpsons, Ed O'Neill, Arsenio Hall, and Phil Hartman, but it buries the prices in a confusing menu that's hard to figure out, a click-heavy mess that's almost designed to encourage people to give up.
It's pretty understandable, considering the service preys on people who don't know the rates, like this Ars Technica reader who found a $42.55 charge waiting for him after he called his California home from Las Vegas.
The lesson here: If you're stuck without a device and you need to call someone, get a burner phone. It's probably cheaper, and the odds of finding a payphone in 2016 are pretty low, anyway.
We're a long way from the heyday of phone phreaking—the phenomenon of exploring the telephone system to understand how it works. (Calling a couple of random phone numbers, like the ones above? That's nothing compared to phreaking.)
But the phenomenon gave us a lot. For example, Apple. Thanks to a 1971 article in Esquire magazine, Steve Wozniak got really interested in messing around with the phone system, and convinced one of his pals, a guy named Steve Jobs, to start creating blue boxes—devices that created tones that allowed them to mess with the phone system and bend it to their will—and selling them to fellow students.
The duo came up with amazing nicknames for themselves—Woz "Berkeley Blue," Jobs "Oaf Tobar"—and got hooked. Less than five years later, the duo had started a company you may have heard of, and a few generations later, I'm typing these closing sentences on a device that is something of a distant relative of those early blue boxes.
It's so impressive, it makes you want to say something phonetically balanced.