Facebook, Twitter among targets of 1-800 phone-sex ruse

Updated: Single company exploiting famous names by hoarding one-quarter of all 1-800 numbers

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Facebook, Twitter, Android, Hotmail and Netflix are among the household names whose absence of control over their most obvious 1-800 numbers  is allowing a massive phone-sex operation to illicitly cash in on - and potentially sully - their valuable brands.

The FCC should be preventing such abuses, but doesn't appear to have lifted a dialing finger.

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Cybersquatting has been around since capitalists discovered the Internet, but not until reading this head-shaker of an investigative report by the Associated Press was I aware that the practice extended to the world of 1-800 telephone numbers. From that AP story:

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.

The story listed examples: 1-800-Chicago, 1-800-Cadillac, 1-800-Minolta, 1-800-Cameras, 1-800-Worship and 1-800-Whirlpool. My own dialing turned up invitations for pay-per-minute heavy breathing on 1-800-Facebook, 1-800-Twitter, 1-800-Android, 1-800-Hotmail, and 1-800-Netflix. (Company or brand names that exceed seven letters are still susceptible to the ruse.)

Those who dial these numbers are only charged if they willingly pay by credit card, but since controlling each 1-800 number costs PrimeTel just under 10 cents per month and phone sex costs a couple bucks a minute (I'm told), well, the math must work out or they wouldn't be bothering with such an enormous undertaking. PrimeTel controls almost 1.7 million 1-800 numbers and insists everything it's doing is on the up and up, according to AP.

It's also clear from the AP story that this isn't supposed to be happening - there are FCC regulations designed to prevent number hoarding - but the regulators simply are not doing much regulating. So right now every owner of a company or brand name that has seven-plus digits but no attendant 800- number is trying the obvious one that they don't own to see if it goes to a sex line.

A Microsoft spokesperson said the company would have no comment about 1-800-Hotmail. I've also contacted the public relations departments of Facebook, Twitter, Google and Netflix to see if their companies have been aware of these parasitic 1-800 numbers and what, if anything, they've tried to do about it.

It may be that these unauthorized numbers are dialed so infrequently that the brands associated with them see little risk in tolerating the abuse.

However, that doesn't strike me as a typical corporate attitude.

(Update: From Netlix vice president of corporate communications Steve Swasey: "We're aware.  No one complains.  The same thing happened to me when I called the wrong number for Southwest Airlines. We publish this number on the Netflix Web site for Customer Service:  1-866-716-0414.") 

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