Dear Matthew Alice: Why is it that some of the 800 phone numbers have eight digits or more instead of seven? What are the extra digits for? Do I have to dial them all or only the first seven? — Craig J. Hamren, National City
Think maybe this 800-number phenomenon has gotten a little out of hand? You can hardly watch TV or read a label or open a newspaper that you don’t see companies begging us to pleeeeez call them on their 800 lines with our questions, comments, deepest philosophical musings. Want to chat about granola bars? Q-tips? Baking soda? Got a Shredded Wheat emergency? Need some hard facts fast about bean dip? Cool Whip? Saltines? Operators are standing by. There is, in fact, a whole phone book devoted to 800 numbers. Of course the thing most businesses want us to do is order their products. And to make it easy for us to remember what to dial, they transform their numbers into business-related words spelled by the corresponding letters on the phone keypad. That’s great if you sell something that can be condensed to a catchy three- or seven-letter word. As you might suspect, you can order a dozen roses by calling 1 -800-FLOWERS; 1-800-871-DUST will get you air filters; call 1-800-443-TERM if you’d like an insurance salesman to call. But let’s imagine we’re selling beer, and from the 800 number we’re assigned, the closest we can come to a meaningful word is 1-800-555-BARF. This won’t do, of course, but if we advertise our number as 1-800-555-BARFLY, the orders should come rolling in. As far as the phone system is concerned, it’s all the same. Once the 1-800 has been dialed, the system only looks at the next seven digits. Any dialing our customers do after that is ignored, as the switching system connects them to 555-BARF.
Same rule applies to other types of calls, including ordinary seven-digit local calls. In fact, if you’d like to find out what Mom Alice is up to now that she’s had her phone sex line shut down, try dialing 853-NAGNAGNAG.