How Toll-free Numbers Work

Toll-free Numbers and Responsible Organizations

Toll-free numbers are often routed into a central call center.
Toll-free numbers are often routed into a central call center.
© Photographer: Yiannos1 | Agency: Dreamstime

All possible toll-free numbers are contained in a centralized database called the 800 Service Management System (SMS/800). The SMS/800 knows whether a number (1-800, 1-888, 1-877, 1-866) is available or in use, and if it's in use, what the customer's routing instructions are.

To get one of the numbers, a customer must contact a Responsible Organization. Responsible Organizations (RespOrgs) are businesses, often telephone companies, that have gone through a certification process and have SMS/800 privileges. RespOrgs can check availability, reserve numbers for customers and make changes to the customer's account. A RespOrg could be a telephone company or it could be an individual sitting at a computer monitor. Companies sometimes opt to become their own RespOrgs and manage their own accounts.

Until 1991, the only providers of 1-800 toll-free numbers were the telephone companies, but in that year, the FCC mandated that all toll-free numbers become fully portable [source: SMS/800]. Portability means that a toll-free customer can switch its carrier at any time and keep the same phone number. Prior to that, customers who wanted to keep their number were locked in with the phone company they began with, even if they were unhappy with the service or rates. Portability opened the floodgates for third-party RespOrgs. The SMS/800 Web site currently lists more than 400 RespOrgs around the country.

Portability opened up the toll-free industry. Numbers don't ever expire, creating a thriving market for number purchasing. RespOrgs and RespOrg agents have also stepped in and created Web pages hawking their services to people searching for toll-free numbers. These businesses will charge anywhere from $20 to $50 to find you a toll-free number. Some of the businesses advertising online are RespOrgs, but others are middlemen, and the difference isn't always clear. The middlemen can be helpful, but like in any business, they can also be unscrupulous.

Judith Oppenheimer, publisher of ICB Toll-Free News, an online industry newsletter, says that consumers shopping for a toll-free number need to be very careful when picking a RespOrg.

"People should read their contracts and demand to know who their RespOrg is, no matter who their service provider is," she said. "There are so many Web sites selling numbers and proclaiming that it is legal, but it's pretty hard to distinguish online because the baddest apples can make themselves look very legitimate" [source: Interview with Judith Oppenheimer, Feb. 19, 2008]

Given the potential unruliness of the industry, what is the Federal Communications Commission doing to reign in illegal practices? What's legal and what's not? Let's take a look at the FCC's role now.