If you are the type of person who pays attention to such things, then you have noticed that the prefix 555 is frequently used for fictitious numbers in North American television, movies, video games, books, and other media. In fact, the numbers 555-0100 through 555-0199 are specifically reserved for fictional use, while the other numbers are reserved for actual assignment at some point in time. This leads people to believe that calls with a 555 prefix must be some type of scam or fake call. This assumption has some basis in reality, but is not entirely warranted.
First, it is important to realize that this association of the 555 prefix with fiction is limited to North America; outside of North America, phone numbers with 555 prefixes are routinely assigned to individuals and businesses. This is a critical issue, because a lot of fiction crosses international boundaries. A number used as fictional number in North America might actually be a working number in another location. This scenario happened in 1995. Gary Larson’s cartoon The Far Side included a panel with a 555 number, which could be used to prank call Satan. In the United States, there was no issue with the number. However, the cartoon is very popular in Australia, which does not have the same fictional 555 association. The owner of the listed phone number was inundated with telephone calls and actually attempted to sue Larson for defamation because of the harassment. This example demonstrates why it is important to have some numbers designated for fictional use.
In fact, some 555 telephone numbers have become famous because they are fictional. Anyone who doubts that media usage of a phone number could actually make a phone number famous is probably too young to have tried to call Jenny at 867-5309. This use of an actual number was certainly not the only time that doing so caused complications and harassment for phone users. The movie Bruce Almighty used a non-fictional number for God, which resulted in the owners of those numbers receiving a number of calls. A song by the musical group The Time featured Dez Dickerson’s phone number, which he had to change after receiving multiple phone calls. More recently, Alicia Key’s song Diary features a real phone number in the New York area, but omits the area code. The most famous fiction number is probably 555-2368. Older people might recognize the number 555-2368 and dial it to try to reach Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files, Jaime Sommers from The Bionic Woman, the hotel room in Memento, or, most notably, the Ghostbusters.
While writers and producers have relied on the use of the fictional 555 prefix to avoid unintentional harassment of the owner of a phone number, this reliance on fictional numbers actually signals a missed marketing opportunity. If a movie, TV show, or book requires the use of a number to further the plot, setting up an actual phone number that interacts with the media seems like a better use of time than employing a fictional number. While 555 is considered a fictional prefix, the reality is that numbers with a 555 prefix are used throughout North America. The most notable “real” use of the 555 prefix is for directory assistance. Throughout the United States, callers can dial 555-1212 to reach directory assistance.
In addition, it is possible for individuals and businesses to get 555 numbers. However, it rarely occurs. In order to understand why one sees so few 555 prefix numbers, it is important to understand a little telephone number history. In 1994, the North American Numbering Plan Administration released most 555 numbers, except for those reserved for fictional use, for assignment to telephone customers. The initial goal was for these 555 prefix numbers to work similar to 1-800 numbers and provide access to services without using an area code. While the idea worked on paper and is very effective for a program like directory assistance, it did not translate well into a business idea and few of the 555 numbers were in use. This was at least partially due to the fact that phone carriers were resistant to the idea of nationwide numbers that did not require a prefix and would not assign the numbers to their customers. Furthermore, the use of the number was confusing; callers did not know if numbers with a 555 prefix would be toll-free like 800 number calls or would be similar to 900 number calls.
However, the real barrier to more widespread implementation of 555 prefix phone numbers appears to be a phone-company focus on profit. When these numbers were released in 1994, people and businesses were able to get access to the numbers, but were not necessarily able to get access to the services that would connect those numbers. The phone companies protested that adding nationwide 555 services would be prohibitively expensive. They might compromise with their customers and set up the 555 numbers, but they charged huge premiums. For example, in the early 2000s, Verizon was charging its customers a $2,500 set-up fee per area code, and if the number was not established in a particular area code, then customers dialing from that area code could not connect to the service.
Knowing that the majority of 555 numbers are not fictitious, but are also not in use, what should you do if you see an incoming call with a 555 prefix in the phone number? One potential use of the 555 prefix is the one-ring cell phone scam. In the one-ring cell phone scam, the scammers use auto-dialers to call people and let the phone ring a single time before disconnecting. The hope is that the caller will see a missed call and return a call to that number, and, when they do, they will be charged an exorbitant per-minute fee for calling that number. However, because some 555 numbers might be linked to valid callers, you can always use a reverse directory option through a service like Numberguru.com to discover if the phone is connected to a legitimate enterprise and if you want to answer the call.