Could you spell that number again?

June 04, 1993|By Dallas Morning News

When Shawn Patrello needed a phone number for Rubber Chicken, his Dallas comedy troupe, he almost got a basic, boring, numerical phone number.

But Mr. Patrello's a funny kind of guy, and he realized that his phone number should reflect frivolity in a way plain numbers simply cannot do. So he called Southwestern Bell with a request -- could he, oh please oh please, have a word instead of a number?

Yes, was the reply. And now Rubber Chicken has LAFF as the last four digits of its phone number.

(The Comedy Club in Baltimore opted for LAF-FTER.)

"It works really well," says Mr. Patrello, 31, who is a florist and cartoonist in his other life. "There's not a member of our audience who doesn't remember our phone number."

These "vanity numbers" (to use phone company lingo) are everywhere -- on cable TV, billboards, advertisements, toothpaste tubes, cereal boxes.

Some companies, in an effort to fit a name into an 800 number, add an eighth letter -- and sometimes a ninth or 10th. Only 10 digits, including 800, will register, so dialing the "O" (6) in 1 (800) MARLBORO is unnecessary.

But you need to dial all the letters of 1 (800) THE CARD to get an American Express card application; 1 (800) CASH NOW connects you with the company's express cash program.

There's no escaping them. While in church one Sunday, Sprint spokesman Tom Rafferty picked up his hymnal and saw 1 (800) LITURGY. It's the number for Oregon Catholic Press in Portland.

"The idea was, 'Let's get this number if we can, as a better service to our people so they can remember it instead of memorizing a number,'" says Ken Brokamp, the company's marketing director.

Most companies that use vanity numbers -- which also include such easy-to-dial combinations as 0000 or 3535 -- are sales and marketing businesses or customer-service firms.

Almost 20 percent of businesses nationwide with 800 numbers -- about 150,000 -- use vanity numbers, which cost no more than regular numbers.

Vanity numbers started in the late 1970s -- the first time a company could get an 800 number that could be dialed from anywhere in the country, says AT&T spokesman Marvin Wamble.

He predicts that use of vanity numbers will grow. One reason: His company's 700 service -- phone numbers that can follow people from city to city -- which will open up a whole new realm of possible letter combinations.

With three letters each for numbers two through nine, phone numbers can spell more than one word.

Sometimes that causes trouble -- as when radio talk-show host ** Howard Stern asked his listeners to dial an 800 number he made up.

Unfortunately, the letters also spelled the name of a major company. The business was swamped with calls, and operators were not amused.

Until recently, long-distance carriers were assigned certain 800-number exchanges (the first three digits). People who wanted a specific number would call a carrier and ask for it. If the number wasn't part of the carrier's repertoire, callers would be routed to the company that had the number.

But on May 1, "portability" took effect. Now any carrier can offer any 800 number -- provided it's not already in use. If people want a different long-distance company, portability allows them to keep the same number.

"With portability," says Corey Eng, senior manager-800 product marketing for MCI, "possibilities of numbers are almost endless. There are close to 10 million to choose from. Vanity numbers are even easier to have now."

To get one, customers call their local phone company or national long-distance company and ask for a certain number.

Computers can check quickly to see if the number is in use -- as either a vanity or a regular number.

Locally, the requested number must have a prefix within the area of the city where the business is located. Otherwise, the customer must pay for the number.

Vanity numbers are clever, fun and easy to remember. And they can be a real pain when you try to dial them.

Think of dialing Red Roof Inns -- 1 (800) THE ROOF -- for instance. Let's see . . .T is seven, H is four, E is three. It seems to take forever to figure out what letter matches each number.

What's especially frustrating are hard-to-spell companies that put their name in their vanity number. One missed letter -- number, whatever -- and you have a wrong number. But many companies take bad spellers into consideration, Mr. Eng says.

"They reserve all the numbers around all types of possible misspellings. If you misdial, it goes through as planned."

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