On Writing

For a Good Time, Call and Other Uses of Fictitious Phone Numbers

Most of us are familiar with the Tommy Tutone song “867-5309/Jenny.” Over thirty years later, that phone number is still ingrained in my memory. Why? Because it was set to a catchy tune and played at least every hour on the radio when I was a kid. What started as a cute gimmick for Tommy Tutone, turned out to be a nightmare for anyone unfortunate enough to own the 867-5309 number, fielding phone calls from adolescent pranksters and drunken frat boys looking for a good time.

Even more recently, the movie Bruce Almighty used the phone number 776-2323 on a pager from God. The filmmakers did make sure this number was fictitious to the Buffalo, New York area code, the setting of the film. However, what they failed to realize was that the number was not fictitious to the rest of the nation. The New York area code never appeared in the film, so unsuspecting people across the US received thousands of calls asking for God.[1] [2] The movie, which was released in 2003 by Universal Pictures, went on to gross over 484 million dollars worldwide.[3]

So what options are there? This article will address this situation primarily for the US because I don’t know enough about the telecommunications policies of other countries.

As to date, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has never issued an official guideline for the use of telephone numbers in film, radio, theater and print, but the NANPA (North American Numbering Plan Administration) has set aside specific numbers for fictitious use.[4]

We’ve all seen and heard the 555 prefix. It is very recognizable as a fake number, because it is. It is universal across all state area codes. But just because a number has the 555 prefix does not mean it is available for use as a fictitious number. Only numbers between 555-0100 and 555-0199 are available for use as fictitious numbers. All other numbers beginning with the 555 prefix are available for assignment or have already been assigned, though most, with the exception of 555-1212, are not working at this time. So if a story is set in Idaho, an author could use 208-555-0123 in their book or any other combination of area and the last two digits of the phone number.

It is considered a courtesy to use these non-working numbers to avoid the types of situations mentioned above and possible legal action.

Another option is to use one of the 32 numbers from the UK, US, and Australia reserved by Fictional Telecom for shared use in TV, books, movies, and radio dramas. Anyone who calls these numbers will receive a busy/engaged signal.[5] The numbers are limited, though. For example, in the US there are four numbers; Australia, eight; the UK, twenty. All are in different area codes.

A mostly unknown option (and something I wouldn’t recommend but am including in this article as an FYI) is to use the 958 area code. Any combination of numbers can be used for the last seven digits of the ten-digit phone number as long as the 958 area code precedes it. So regardless of where the story setting takes place, the phone number could be 958-123-4567 or any other combination of numbers after the 958 area code. However, the numbers in this area code have been set aside for telecommunications technicians to determine the telephone number of a specific line. In other words it is for testing purposes. These numbers have not be set aside for use as fictitious numbers and may cause a problem if the response to the number is large. I don’t recommend using these numbers simply because they have a specific purpose.

Unless the phone number is pivotal to the story or establishes authenticity that cannot be established in any other way, my recommendation to authors is to skip the fictitious number. But if an author wants to put a phone number in their work of fiction, please be aware of the options:

  • Any number within a given area code and the 555 prefix + 01, for example, (xxx) 555-01xx
  • Select a shared use number from http://www.fictionaltelecom.com/ if the story is set in one of the area codes available
  • Purchase a number within the area code (author responsible for payment and ownership)
  • Any number within the 958 area code, for example, (958) xxx-xxxx (not recommended)
  • Use the author’s home telephone number (not recommended)

Be aware of the telephone numbers you use in your works of fiction. Try to avoid angering a government agency or shackling some unsuspecting telephone user with prank calls to a fictional character.


[1] “‘Bruce Almighty’ fans give God a call,” by Mitch Stacy, May 23, 2003, Lawrence.com,  http://www.lawrence.com/news/2003/may/29/bruce_almighty/.

[2] “‘Bruce Almighty’ Stirs Phone Calls to God,” by Cliff Vaughn, May 30, 2003, Ethics Daily, http://www.ethicsdaily.com/bruce-almighty-stirs-phone-calls-to-god-cms-2628.

[3] “Bruce Almighty,” Box Office Mojo, An IMBD company, last modified August 2, 2011, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=brucealmighty.htm.

[4] “Final INC Guidelines,”ATIS: Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, accessed October 6, 2013, http://www.atis.org/inc/incguides.asp.

[5] “Fictional Telecom,” FicitonalTelecom is a brand of Comcetera, Ltd, accessed October 6, 2013, http://www.fictionaltelecom.com/.


Comments

  1. I’m going to be singing that song all night now. Can you guess how many guys thought it was funny to ask if my number was 867-5309 when that song was popular? Too many to count!

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