How Toll-free Numbers Work

Toll-free Numbers and the FCC

Fed Ex has one of the easiest recognizable vanity toll-free numbers: 1-800-GO-FED-EX.
Fed Ex has one of the easiest recognizable vanity toll-free numbers: 1-800-GO-FED-EX.
© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) states that toll-free phone numbers are in the public domain and, therefore, can't be sold legally for profit ("brokering"). The agency prohibits all practices contrary to this idea. In a recent court filing responding to small business owners looking for looser regulation, the FCC clarified its guidelines. Among them:

  • Toll-free numbers must be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Subscribers are only permitted to subscribe to the amount of toll-free numbers that they actually intend to use.
  • A RespOrg can't reserve a number without having first identified a user. The practice of reserving numbers and not allocating them is known as "hoarding."
  • To prevent hoarding, the FCC mandates that a RespOrg must allocate a reserved number within eight months.

[source: Federal Communications Commission court document on Toll Free Administration, CC Docket No. 95-155]

In spite of the FCC regulations, selling numbers for profit has been a common practice, especially in the case of vanity numbers [source: Interview with Bill Quimby, Feb. 20, 2008]. A vanity number is one that spells out a memorable word or phrase on the numeric keypad. Here are a few instances of individuals and businesses selling toll-free numbers for profit.

  • The vanity number 1-800-GREATRATE sold for $8,600 on eBay.
  • The owner of a Minnesota Mercedes dealership won a case brought against him by Mercedes Benz USA who had been trying to buy his 800-MERCEDES toll-free number from him.
  • A vanity number with a Beverly Hills area code sold for $349.99 on eBay.
  • Sichuan Airlines bought the number 888-888-8888 for $280,000 in a charity auction. (The Chinese consider "8" a lucky number.)

[source: "Despite Illegality, Companies Bid Premium Sums for Prized Phone Numbers," Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, March 9, 2004]

Bill Quimby, founder and president of, said that many phone companies inadvertently hoard numbers through sheer mismanagement.

"Because phone numbers are invisible, it's very easy to lose track of them," he said. "RespOrgs can be very disorganized, and there's no cleaning system in the SMS/800" [source: Interview with Bill Quimby, Feb. 20, 2008].

He also said that many people find ways around the FCC regulations, and that oversight is weak at best.

"The FCC has not been very diligent in paying attention to anything in the toll-free business," he said. "There are a lot of vanity-number businesses that use very thin excuses or technicalities to get around the regulations. That's ultimately wrong, but the FCC hasn't done anything about it."

Now that we have a sense of what's going on in the toll-free industry, let's take a look at the phenomenon of vanity toll-free numbers and provide some tips on how to get a good one.