No, you didn’t win the Jethro Tull box set, and please tell everybody else in your area code to stop calling me


Some time ago, a fellow employee started receiving mysterious fax calls at the office four or five times a day and had to call the Microsoft telephone services folks to block the caller. But this reminded another colleague of a much more annoying problem, and one for which caller-block would not have worked.

A local radio station had a contest line in the 206 area code. If someone in the 425 area code dialed this number without dialing the 206 area code prefix, they rang the phone of a new Microsoft employee. That employee's phone was set up incorrectly, and the calls ended up auto-forwarded to my phone. Every time the radio station ran a contest, my phone lit up like a Christmas tree.

The telephone services department had to retire the phone number that matched the radio station's number.

It's a pretty funny story, but only in retrospect.

Background information (simplified) for those unfamiliar with United States telephone dialing rules: To make a call within an area code, you just dial the last seven digits. To make calls between area codes, you dial all ten digits. The contest number was (206) 555-1212, and people in the 425 area code who forgot to dial the 206 prefix ended up calling (425) 555-1212 by mistake. (In parts of the country with ten-digit dialing, the area code is mandatory even for calls originating from the same area code.)

Forgot to knock on wood: Barely a week after my colleague told the story of the radio station contest line, it happened again. The telephone department once again assigned the troublesome number to a new Microsoft employee, and due to the incorrect set-up, my colleague's phone once again started ringing whenever the local radio station announced a call-in contest.

This time, the telephone support people placed a permanent block on the troublesome phone number, so it will never be used for anything again. Well, more accurately, they tried three times, and the third time it finally worked (knock on wood). And nobody ever figured out why the number forwarded to my colleague's phone. Some things will always be a mystery...

Comments (28)
  1. Chriso says:

    Hmm…i really wonder if it was happening the other way around too. Like, someone who wanted to call that employee ending up at the radio station. :)

  2. MItaly says:

    This reminds me a telephone mystery that happened once here in Italy: many families who changed their telephone company (including mine) had their telephone numbers swapped with another one. This retrospectively was rather funny, because you had to redirect all the calls, and ended up socializing with the perfect strangers that where the momentary owners of your number.

  3. Tom West says:

    I’m reminded of our very small company that finally got a 1-800 number for technical support.  We were told we it would be 1-800-463-xxxx where we could choose the xxxx as long as it was free.

    I helpfully suggested 4357 (i.e. ‘HELP’) for our tech support line.

    Unfortunately, I neglected to consider what ‘463’ could stand for.

    Each Monday we would come back to an answering machine with 3-5 phone calls containing such human misery (often self-inflicted) that we started drawing straws to decide who would have to listen to the answering machine messages to extract the actual ones that were for us.

    It took us a few months to get a replacement number and the office was a somewhat more sober place during that while.  Luckily we only rarely received calls during business hours, and soon we has a crisis center number or two posted by our desks…

    I still shiver when remembering some of those calls.

  4. Peter Kron says:

    Reminds me of a problem at home some time ago in which we started getting regular phone calls every 15 minutes. I tried for a while to get some relief from the phone company to no avail.

    It was driving us crazy and was so regular that I thought it must be some autodialer, so I strung a wire to the modem in my computer. (That dates the story right there.) Sure enough, within 15 minutes the call came in was answered by the modem. I directed the data to the console and saw some nice ASCII patient data with the name of a local hospital.

    I called the hospital and asked if they really wanted to be sending me this confidential stuff. Very soon the calls stopped.

  5. Philip says:

    The same can happen when people dial without the right country code: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/8127460.stm – "Thousands of music fans have been bombarding an Oldham family with calls – ever since their telephone number featured on a rap track. US rap artist Soulja Boy included the ex-directory number in his latest hit, Kiss Me Thru The Phone. […] Mr Matley, 54, said: "I mean, with my looks and my accent, I fit the perfect profile for a rapper from Oldham. What’s the chances of our phone number appearing in a US rap song? Probably as likely as winning the lottery, but without the money.""

  6. Richared says:

    When I worked in Aerospace, my work phone matched a phone number

    at our state’s DMV.  At the beginning of each month, I would get

    a slew of calls from people forgetting to include the area code

    for DMV (they were calling the "main" DMV office in Sacramento

    while I was located in southern California).

    This usually lasted a couple of days.  I would politely tell the

    caller that they needed to redial the number, this time including

    the area code.  It was usually futile as very few of the callers

    spoke English.

    Your company was better than mine, since I was unable to convince

    anyone at my place of employment that I should get a new number.

  7. I have this occasionally: transpose the last two digits of my extension number and you have the line our HR department uses in newspaper listings, so I get quite a few calls from job-seekers. Fortunately, none so far have been looking for work in telephony. Being a university, I have also occasionally had calls from debt collection agencies, chasing former students who had put this as their contact number – until about three years ago, that extension was used by a shared postgrad room.

    I had a spate of silent calls recently, too – all with Caller ID withheld, and our telephony department claims to be unable to block those. I’ve had quite a few anonymous calls to my mobile recently, too, and can’t block them – irritatingly, only the landline providers in the UK seem to offer that at the moment, not mobile companies.

    I’m told a common problem with new 1-800 numbers is getting one which was previously used for calling cards: because so many of those cards get distributed, the numbers tend to get a lot of calls even after all the cards using that number have expired – and of course every mistaken call like this costs the recipient money.

  8. Gabe says:

    Microsoft has caused a problem like this of their own: http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19950808&slug=2135450

    "Fugu and Microsoft ended up with nearly identical phone numbers: Fugu’s is 881-8080; Microsoft’s main number is 882-8080.

    The similarity between the numbers has also confused employees at Microsoft, the world’s largest software company.

    They have mistakenly given out the wrong number to customers, friends and family."

  9. fahadsadah says:

    Chriso:

    If somebody in (206) wanted to call the Microsoft employee, and forgot the (425) code, then yes, it would happen. That’s very unlikely, however.

  10. Ivo says:

    I could never understand the ten-digit dialing areas. My area code switched from 7 to 10 digits many years ago and it still bothers me.

    If I am calling from a phone number in area code XYZ then if I dial 7 digits I do mean "in the XYZ area code". Is the phone system so stupid that it can’t figure it out? The call routing should be all in software now. It should be trivial to fix rather than annoy millions of customers.

  11. Mark says:

    Ivo: the routing is done per digit, and it doesn’t know when you’re finished dialling.  How would it tell whether you mean a 10-digit code, or a 3-digit extension?

  12. @Ivo: the problem is that there are "overlay" area codes: the same region served by two different area codes.  For example, where I work, the same geography has both a (248) and a newer (947) area code.

    It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to me; I don’t routinely "dial" a lot of numbers these days.  Rather, I find the contact entry in my cell phone and press "talk".

  13. Dinev says:

    Here we had so-called "duplex" sharing of a phone-line. One line serving two random families (complete strangers). The lines were so messed-up, that you could hear and partake in the conversation of complete strangers; often you had to yell to the strangers to shut up for a minute. Sometimes the phone would ring when it’s meant for others.

    In the dial-up era I didn’t know I shared a line, and so I was hogging it; until for several days there was no line. Turned-out that other family lifted the headphone, and threw their phone in an aquarium; in protest. Thus, I moved to cable-net, which interestingly came through optical-fiber to my block (quite a forethought, back in 2001) .

  14. In WV, we recently added a new area code.  The downside is that now, no matter which area code you are dialing from or to, you HAVE to dial all 7 digits.  If it’s deemed "long" distance, you have to include the 1.  Thank God for Speed Dial!!

  15. Eric Mason says:

    I’ve had two bad encounters with screwed up phones…

    Growing up, the last 4 digits of our phone number were 1119. A new movie multiplex opened nearby and the last four digits (same exchange) were 1114. In the tiny print of the newspaper, it got mangled. We got 100’s of calls every weekend when decent movies were out (such as Star Wars – that dates me). We tried everything, get the theater to enlarge the print, etc. Eventually, they gave us passes and we changed our phone number (that we’d had for 15 years).

    Later in life, the area code around Philadelphia split into two different area codes. However, the person setting up the local Crazy Eddie’s yellow pages ad put the wrong area code into the add in huge print, resulting in regular (sometimes nasty) calls to our house. After long negotiations with the owner, we changed our number, he got our old one in the area code, and they fixed our TV’s for free for a couple of years. They said they’d forward calls to us, but not sure if they ever did.

    Phone screwups are a PITA.

  16. GregM says:

    Our home phone number is one digit different from a local realtor (we’re 6, they’re 9), so they’re even next to each other on the phone.  If you transpose the last two digits of our phone number, you get one of the 3 post offices in town.  It was really confusing the first time I got a call on my cell phone for the post office.  At that point, I didn’t know about the similarities in our phone number.  As it was the post office furthest away from our house, it took me a while to find that number and then figure out that it was because my cell phone is the number that Vonage forwards to when our internet connection is out.

  17. J says:

    "If I am calling from a phone number in area code XYZ then if I dial 7 digits I do mean "in the XYZ area code". Is the phone system so stupid that it can’t figure it out? The call routing should be all in software now."

    7-digit dialing is typically a temporary transitional period to appease people who rage about having to dial an extra 3 digits (not that I’m pointing fingers here).  For 10-digit dialing, it’s not that the phone system is stupid, but it’s that the designers went for a simple and consistent user interface.  The users learn one rule:  dial 10 digits.  Why complicate it with special cases for no real benefit?

  18. Barry says:

    I went to college in Bethlehem, PA, which has the 867 exchange in Pennsylvania.  The song "867-5309/Jenny" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/867-5309/Jenny) came out in 1982.  It turned out a friend of mine from the local area knew the little old lady who had had that number for years and couldn’t understand why all these people were calling and asking for "Jenny."

    Eventually the phone company gave her a new number.

  19. GregM says:

    Why dial 10 digits instead of 7 for calls within the area code?  The alternative options:

    1. Have some way to indicate that the user is done dialing a 7 digit number.  This is the "send" button on cell phones, but has no equivalent button on regular land-line phones.  The only available methods are a timeout, and some unused sequence of digits.  If the timeout is too short, then false timeouts occur when someone has to pause dialing to look at the phone number again.  If the timeout is too long, then people get frustrated that their calls don’t connect right away like they used to.  There is no sequence of fewer than 3 digits that can’t appear at the end of a 10 digit phone number, so it would be just as bad or worse than dialing the area code.

    2. Some otherwise-unused prefix is used to indicate that a 10-digit number is coming, rather than a 7 digit number.  0 and 1 are the only digits that can’t start area codes.  Both of those already have meanings.  0 normally means making a collect or calling-card call, and 1 normally means "this is a toll call, and costs extra".  Using 0 for this would make no sense, and using a 1 prefix for calls within the same town (in the case of overlaid area codes) is not desirable.  It would then need to be multiple 0s or 1s in a sequence to indicate that 10 digits are being used, which is also undesirable as it makes calling out of the area code longer.

    3. Area codes must be distinct from the first three numbers used in any 7-digit phone number.  This used to be the case, area codes always had a 0 or 1 as the middle digit, and no phone number had a 0 or 1 as the second digit, so the second digit indicated how many digits to expect.  Then we ran out of area codes, so that restriction had to be removed in order to add new area codes.

  20. David Walker says:

    GregM:  Is that why cell phones have a different interface?  I would prefer that a cell phone gives you a dial tone, and after you hear that tone, you dial the number.  I don’t like dialing a cell phone and THEN pressing something to "make the call".

    It seems like "just a different interface" with no real benefit.  And, even though (or maybe because) I have been a computer programmer for 35 years, I don’t have a cell phone or a pager, and I don’t want one.  

    I don’t use Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or any instant-messaging systems either.  I do use e-mail and search engines….

  21. Boris says:

    @GregM,

    #3 is still true within the areas for which 10-digit dialing is used. E.g. if you live in the 215/267 area, no numbers from either area code would start with 215 or 267. There is nothing stopping the phone company from accepting 7-digit dialing within those area codes. The real reason 10-digit dialing is used is that typically new area codes are owned by a different phone company and the original phone company (the local baby bell) is not allowed to make their competitor’s numbers longer than their own due to anti-monopoly laws. Sounds stupid to me, but whatever.

    What really annoys me is that you can’t dial 1 before the number within the 10-digit dialing area. There is no ambiguity introduced and no anti-monopoly laws apply. Why do they have to play a message "Don’t dial a 1 before this area code" if they already know what area code was meant. How hard is it to transfer it to the intended number.

  22. Worf says:

    And all those people complaining about having to dial 10 digits instead of 7 are missing the point. That’s exactly how we got into this situation the story was about!

    And face it, 10-digit dialling is easier everywhere. Everyone has to publish their area code anyhow since you can have the same number for both area codes.

    If an area needs more numbers, they need a new area code. Then you either split the regions (everyone not from X, you get a new area code), or overlay the new code (all new numbers are the new code, everyone else keeps their number).

    Usually you split if you can split a region geographically (especially if it was a long distance area), and overlay if you cannot. The former gets the wrath of those forced to change their numbers in all their contact info, the latter gets the wrath of 10-digit dialling.

  23. Gabe says:

    I believe the forced 10-digit-dialing was because it would be unfair to those with the new area code. It is strictly a human-factors thing, and has nothing to do with whether the phone system can handle it becaues areas without overlays handle 7- and 10-digit dialing just fine.

    Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to be one of the businesses that you had to dial an extra 3 digits to call. People would either not want to bother, or think the number is long distance and not want to incur charges, or just not remember the unfamiliar area code.

  24. Boris says:

    @Gabe, I would still say the "fairness" is to new phone companies not end users of phone numbers. To my knowledge no area code is so completely exhausted that new numbers within that area code cannot be assigned. If you are a new business, you would just choose the phone company authorized to assign you the area code your users have. Similarly, if you are a residential customer who wants a new number, you would use the phone company who assigns area codes "everybody else" has. This leaves the "new" phone company at a disadvantage.

  25. GregM says:

    "#3 is still true within the areas for which 10-digit dialing is used. E.g. if you live in the 215/267 area, no numbers from either area code would start with 215 or 267."

    Do you have a reference for that?  I’ve never heard of such a restriction.

    "The real reason 10-digit dialing is used is that typically new area codes are owned by a different phone company"

    Massachusetts used to have 2 area codes, 413 and 617.  617 was then split into 617 and 508 in 1988.  617 was then split again into 617 and 781 and 508 into 508 in 508 and 978 in 1997.  Those still weren’t enough, so overlays were added in 2001: 617/857, 781/339, 508/774, and 978/351.

    All of these belong to the same phone company.  10 digit dialing was introduced in preparation for the addition of the overlay area codes.

    Also from wikipedia:

    in major metropolitan areas with overlapping area codes, which were mandated by the FCC to dial all ten digits for all local calls so as not to give new numbers or telecommunications providers a "disadvantage."

    "Is that why cell phones have a different interface?  I would prefer that a cell phone gives you a dial tone, and after you hear that tone, you dial the number.  I don’t like dialing a cell phone and THEN pressing something to "make the call". "

    I presume that it is so that the entire phone number can be transmitted at once, and the user doesn’t waste airtime dialing.  This was a really big deal when the cost per minute was measured in dollars instead of pennies.  It also doesn’t have the history of the rotary dialing actually causing physical switches to connect as you dialed.

  26. Boris says:

    “Do you have a reference for that?  I’ve never heard of such a restriction.”

    I cannot find the source of my statement about overlays not having the same exchange as the area code. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I’m sure I heard it somewhere.

    “All of these belong to the same phone company.  10 digit dialing was introduced in preparation for the addition of the overlay area codes.”

    This seems to be contradicted by the FCC:

    “The FCC has required ten-digit dialing with area code overlays in order to level the playing field, so that new telephone companies can offer their services without suffering a competitive disadvantage.

    Without ten-digit dialing, established telephone companies may have an advantage over new telephone companies. Customers could find it less attractive to choose a new telephone company if doing so would mean always dialing ten digits, but choosing an established telephone company would allow them to dial only seven digits.”

    Perhaps these requirements make it profitable for the same company to use multiple area codes in the same area, but that is a side effect not the purpose of the requirement.

    [“I cannot find the source of my statement about overlays not having the same exchange as the area code.” It’s just logic: No valid dialing sequence can be a prefix of another valid dialing sequence. Suppose 267-215-xxxx was a valid phone number. You are in the 267 area code and dial 215-xxxx. Does the call connect, or should the system wait because you might be dialing 215-xxx-xyyy? -Raymond]
  27. Boris says:

    Raymond,

    I’m talking about places with area code overlays, where ten-digit dialing is mandatory. You would have to dial 267-215 even in the 267 area code.

    [Oh, sorry. Misunderstood. -Raymond]
  28. GregM says:

    "All of these belong to the same phone company.  10 digit dialing was introduced in preparation for the addition of the overlay area codes."

    "This seems to be contradicted by the FCC:"

    That doesn’t contradict either fact (that the overlay area codes didn’t involve a new company, or that 10 digit dialing was introduced as a precondition for the overlay).

    "in major metropolitan areas with overlapping area codes, which were mandated by the FCC to dial all ten digits for all local calls so as not to give new numbers or telecommunications providers a "disadvantage." "

    Notice not just new providers, but also new numbers.

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