What is an 800 Number?

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  • Written By: Phil Shepley
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2019
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An 800 number, also known as a toll-free number, is a phone number that lets a person call an individual or business, usually over a long distance, without being charged for the call. An 800 number does not necessarily have to start with the three-digit code of 800, but can also begin with 888, 877, 866 and other three-digit area codes. The charge for a call to an 800 number is most often paid by the business or individual who received the call, and calls to these toll-free numbers are often redirected to business or personal telephone lines directly.

The history of the 800 number began in 1967, when the telephone company AT&T introduced a new service that provided an alternative to collect calling and was designed to reduce the need for operators. This service was known as inward Wide-Area Telephone Service, or inward WATS, and allowed a direct connection to a business when a caller dialed a number that used a designated toll-free area code, the first of which was 800. The 800 number gained popularity throughout the years, and has been particularly successful when used in the business areas of customer service and telemarketing. Eventually businesses began to use what are known as “vanity 800 numbers,” where a word or words describing the business could be dialed by using the letters that are associated with each number on a phone, which makes the numbers much easier for a person to remember.


Eventually, in the late 1990s, new three-digit codes needed to be introduced to accommodate for the high number of 800 numbers that were being added every year. These were 888, 877 and 866, and other similar area codes such as 855, 881 and many others are reserved for future expansion of the 800 number system. It is because of this that the term “800 number” is a misnomer and is not nearly representative of all toll-free numbers. However, it represents them since it was the first and remains the most widely used of the toll-free three-digit area codes.

Parties that use an 800 number can pay for the service in a variety of ways, such as a flat monthly fee or on a per-call basis. A business can usually justify using a toll-free 800 number because of the ability to make more sales, simpler customer support, and improved customer satisfaction. The 800 number is not only used for businesses, however, and can be utilized for personal phone calls as well. Parents, for example, can pay for toll-free numbers so their children can call them anytime without having to pay for collect calls or long distance services.

The 800 number is not to be confused with the 900 number, during which a caller can be charged an amount by the business they are calling that can far exceed the price of even a normal long distance call. There is also some confusion when normal three-digit area codes, such as 801, are used for telephone numbers and resemble 800 numbers. In this case, the caller is charged for the call when they think it is free. Some telephone scams have been based on this confusion.


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Post 2

There was a time when hackers could call a toll free 800 number, like an airline 800 number, and then whistle a certain tone into the receiver. The original call would be disconnected, but the caller would still be able to make other calls on the toll free line. The trick was to build or buy a tone generator that sounded like the phone's keypad tones.

I think the phone companies have now fixed that vulnerability, so hackers can't make free phone calls any more. The closest thing I ever got to making a "free" phone call was overhearing someone else give out a special WATS line number back in the day. If someone called that 800 phone number first, they could make other phone calls without being charged long distance fees.

Post 1

I remember some businesses used to get vanity 800 numbers, usually number combinations that could be "spelled out" by using the letters above the number. The idea was to come up with something memorable connected with that company's main line of business. A pet store might have a toll-free number like 1-800-FURRIES, for instance. Callers might forget a string of numbers, but they can usually remember a catchy name like 1-800-CANDLES.

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