Going, Going...Gone

ABOUT 140,000 toll-free numbers in the 888 code that were reserved from use two years ago were made available on April 5. And they went like-well, like toll-free numbers.

The Federal Communications Commission allowed a six-hour window for marketers to snap up the numbers. But they went in "a couple of hours," according to Joe Casey, vice president of Database Service Management Inc. (DSMI), the Piscataway, NJ-based administrator of the toll-free database.

The release was expected to bring an end to the long saga of the numbers-except that certain people may face jail terms for not complying with a government request concerning them.

In 1996 the FCC allowed marketers to set aside as "unavailable" nearly 370,000 of the 888 numbers that corresponded to their 800 numbers. Many of the numbers were valuable vanities; marketers feared misdials by consumers or mischief by competitors seeking to profit from the confusion.

One for Marketers

In March 1998, after long deliberation, the FCC finally decided to give those marketers a right of first refusal on the set-aside numbers (but not on the subsequent 877 and future 866 codes). About 230,000 of the numbers were requested and assigned, leaving about 140,000.

The FCC said it would allow the unclaimed numbers to be moved from "unavailable" to "spare" status once it was satisfied that the subscribers had been given a chance to claim them.

In March, Lawrence E. Strickling, chief of the FCC's common carrier bureau, informed DSMI that the "right-of-first-refusal process" was over, and the numbers were to be moved beginning at noon and ending at 6 p.m. EST on April 5. They were made available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Judith Oppenheimer, president of telemarketing consultancy ICB Inc., New York, said she heard the "usual complaints about people not getting the numbers they wanted, the system freezing up." But Casey said the process went "smoothly," though it was busy at the noon hour.

RespOrgs Asked to Comply

The FCC had required the so-called RespOrgs, or responsible organizations-the companies that manage marketers' toll-free records-to certify that they had at least attempted to find out from subscribers whether they wanted the numbers.

In his March 19 letter, Strickling said that the RespOrgs have done so with only about 90% of the numbers, adding "RespOrgs that failed to comply with the procedures are being referred at this time to the bureau's enforcement division."

Possible penalties include decertification as RespOrgs, a fine and even imprisonment.

The FCC refused a request from both AT&T and a Washington, DC trade group to delay until June 1 releasing the numbers forwhich there was no response.