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  a newsletter by |_| j. b. crawford               home archive subscribe rss

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I have read before an idea that there is a "innovator's disadvantage," in that the country that invents a new technology, if it's something that requires widespread adoption, is likely to end up with standards that are inferior to countries that adopt the technology later---because the later adopters have the advantage of incorporating benefits over the following years. That was sort of a tortured sentence, so let's instead try a more concrete example: broadcast television was first widely implemented in the United States. In the US, we ended up with NTSC. The European standard, PAL, was developed some years later, and so it took advantage of improvements in technology to provide a higher resolution.

The US had broadcast television first, but Europe got a better version of it.

I bring this up as a preface to the observation that this does not hold true in the area of phone number allocation. Perhaps through some excellence on the part of AT&T, but perhaps just through luck, the United States has enjoyed a coherent, well-ordered numbering plan for nearly the entire history of the dial telephone. In contrast, many later adopting countries have numbering systems that are relatively very confusing and imprecise.

When I refer to United States phone numbering I am, of course, talking about the North American Numbering Plan, which is also inclusive of Canada and some Central American and Caribbean countries (and formerly Mexico). One of the things that differentiates the philosophy of NANP from that of other national numbering schemes is NANP's strict insistence on geographical organization, rather than service-based organization.

That is, with few exceptions, NANP telephone numbers are based on where the telephone is, not what kind of service it is.

This scheme seems to be generally easier to understand and more useful, but it incurs the significant disadvantage that tolls must either be the same for all telephone numbers within a geography, or telephone users will be quite confused about what to expect on their next phone bill.

In this message, I'd like to explore some of the odd corners of telephone tolls and billing, and look at how industry for some time exploited these.

Let's start with a simple scheme of how telephone billing normally works: for many telephone subscribers (back in the landline era), calls within the same numbering plan area (NPA, commonly called area code) are free. Calls to other NPAs will incur an additional charge as toll-free. Calls to other countries require an international dialing prefix and will incur an additional charge as international.

Many things complicate this scheme, such as areas in which not all of the NPA is considered within the same calling area (technically speaking, calling areas/toll centers are separate from and do not necessarily match up with NPAs), and services like WATS (wide area telephone service) which complicate the definition of "long distance" further. But, that's the general idea.

A major exception to this simple system is telephone prefixes which incur special billing behavior. The most obvious example of this are numbers in the 800 NPA, and now the 855, 866, and 877 NPAs, which are "toll free." Toll free calling might be more descriptively referred to as "reverse charge" calling, because the special billing feature is really that the person called pays instead of the person calling, but the term "reverse charge" is usually reserved to describe collect calls that involve an operator to handle the billing exception, rather than the surprisingly complex infrastructure behind toll free numbers.

Another exception, which is rarely discussed these days, is NPA 900. While it historically served other purposes, NPA 900, or "1-900" numbers, was allocated to "premium rate" services by the '80s. "Premium rate" services charged a per-minute access fee, which was handled by the telephone company---so that it appeared on the normal telephone bill of the caller. These fees were sometimes rather substantial, with $3 and $4 a minute being not uncommon.

As you can imagine, 1-900 numbers were highly subject to abuse. Sex lines seem to be the best remembered today, but more clearly malicious was the trend of television commercials encouraging children to call 1-900 numbers to rack up fees for their parents.

In a clear reflection of the government and telephone industry's surprising inability to actually control the telephone system in any way, this was a more or less accepted practice for quite some time. While a clear scam, it involved no real fraudulent or deceptive behavior. The "third party billing" system was working exactly as designed, with telephone companies passing on charges that were incurred by the "customer" intentionally calling in. The controversy just revolved around how aware the "customer" was of what was actually going on.

As you can imagine, the situation slowly grew into a bigger and bigger scandal, particularly with the revelation that telephone carriers were largely "in on" the scam and made an appreciable profit off of it. Eventually, the government took action, and a series of regulations were implemented which made 1-900 billing abuse more and more difficult in practice.

What gets a bit more interesting is what happened afterwards.

It turns out, with 1-900 billing restricted, creative entrepreneurs with relaxed morals were able to find a series of interesting new ways to third-party bill the caller. These are fun.

One of the earliest methods tapped into a classic malicious exploitation of what might be considered a flaw in NANP: as I have said before, NANP was originally envisioned as a global numbering scheme, not a national one. For that reason, Canada and the US share a country code. This tends to not be too big of a problem, because Canada has reasonably reliable telephone providers and calls from the US to Canada are not usually so expensive as to cause an uproar.

What is a little more problematic is that a lot of people don't realize that a number of small Caribbean nations also share that country code. Long lines to these countries are relatively expensive to install and maintain, leading to high international calling rates. And further, the small telephone carriers in these countries are often more amenable to corruption than the large and heavily regulated ones in the US and Canada.

This has lead to the purely malicious activity of tricking people into calling one of these countries and getting a surprise bill, but how can it be worked to the advantage of former 1-900 scams? That's where the corruption comes in.

Foreign telephone carriers have a certain de facto ability to third-party bill US subscribers who call them, because the overseas telephone carrier can require a high toll and then split that collected toll with the company that directed the traffic towards them. Effectively, this is just another premium-rate number, but without the 900 prefix that consumers had come to know.

This same scam exists today, although in a somewhat modified form. The use of television commercials and especially late-night infomercials to direct callers is no longer as effective, particularly since telephone carriers have started requiring that callers dial the international calling prefix to make most international calls within NANP. This makes it much less likely that a caller won't realize something is strange about the number they're calling.

That said, to this day you will occasionally find cases of people being tricked into calling an overseas number and paying a high international calling toll, which the foreign telephone company then splits (as a kickback) with the person who tricked them into calling. You may also encounter a similar but slightly less malicious version of this scam with domestic numbers, as various toll-sharing agreements allow US carriers to earn some money merely from receiving calls, but the dollar amounts involved are far smaller.

In the era of peak premium rate scams, though, the requirement to dial with an international calling prefix was not necessarily a major deterrent. From the Internet Archive's VHS collection, I've seen several examples of late-night infomercials for phone dating or phone sex lines from the '90s that gave an outright international number with 011 prefix. It's likely that they were taking advantage of telephone users who never called internationally and so didn't realize that 011 indicates an international call.

This seems to represent the late stage of the international calling workaround, and although it produced some truly incredible infomercial programming I don't think that it was especially successful. A lot of people wouldn't have even had international calling enabled on their telephone plan, and the whole scheme requires the cooperation of an overseas telco which makes it more difficult to stand up.

The use of international calling was fairly short lived, and I'm not aware of any specific technical or policy actions taken to close this "loophole," so I tend to suspect that the abuse stopped because... it just didn't work that well. People rob banks because that's where the money is, after all.

Of course, telephone scammers are creative people, and other solutions were found. One that I find particularly interesting is the use of dial-around or 1010 calling. For those who haven't seen me mention this before, dial-around was a feature introduced by regulation that resulted from lobbying by the new industry of competitive long-distance carriers, which wanted to reduce the advantage that AT&T held by being the "default" long-distance carrier.

Essentially, dial-around calling consists of entering the prefix 101 followed by a four-digit number (which often starts with 0) that identifies a long distance carrier. You then enter the number that you want to call, and the call will be placed using the long-distance carrier you selected. This allowed telephone users to "shop around" and select specific long-distance carriers depending on their rates to specific areas, and made the whole long-distance industry much more competitive.

Experience has shown, though, that small telcos can't be trusted in the United States either. Telephone scammers created a series of "long distance carriers" that really just served as feeders to the same type of content that had formerly been placed on premium rate lines. Television commercials told people to dial an oddly long phone number that included a dial-around prefix. Since the "selected long distance carrier" had the right to bill the caller for the long-distance rate, they could simply charge a high long-distance rate and split it with the operator of the phone number (which was very likely the same person anyway).

This abuse of the system is a particularly interesting one, because it's a case where scammers took advantage of the system by actually creating what was, nominally, a telco---but was in reality just a front. This is oddly fascinating to me. Phone phreaking has always elucidated this wonderful idea that the telephone system is a mysterious place full of hidden corridors and strange rooms, and that rarely seems more true than when you look into fraudulent telcos that set up telephone switches just to trick people out of a few dollars.

For all the problems we have today with spam calls, we have to remember that malicious engineering of the phone system is in no way new. People have been up to things with telephones since Alexander Graham Bell first wired one up.

A very similar phenomena has occurred with toll-free numbers and the strange world of RespOrgs, which I will talk about in the future. There are gremlins in the toll-free system as well. I also plan to talk about a few other cases of "unusual" NPAs that break the general rule of NPAs corresponding to a physical area, and that have interesting billing properties.