555 (telephone number)
Not all numbers that begin with 555 are fictional—for example, 555-1212 is one of the standard numbers for directory assistance throughout the United States and Canada. In fact, only 555-0100 through 555-0199 are now specifically reserved for fictional use; the other numbers have been reserved for actual assignment. The entire 555 exchange is reserved in all overlay North American toll-free area codes (800, 844, 855, 866, 877, 888) and in Canada's rarely used non-geographic area code 600.
Area code 555 in the North American Numbering Plan is reserved for Directory Assistance applications.
Telephone companies began encouraging the producers of television shows and movies to use the 555 prefix for fictional telephone numbers by the 1960s. Two early examples include The Second Time Around (1961), which used 555-3485, and Panic in Year Zero! (1962), which used 555-2106. In television shows made or set in the mid-1960s or earlier, "KLondike 5" or "KLamath 5" reflects the old convention for telephone exchange names. Before "555" or "KLondike-5" gained broad usage, scriptwriters would sometimes invent fake exchanges starting with words like "QUincy" or "ZEbra", as the letters "Q" and "Z" were not used on the old dial phones. Numbers in format "Zenith" X-XXXX, while not directly dialable, were not fictional. These were an early form of regional tollfree number which required operator assistance.
555 use is restricted only in North America. In 1994, cartoonist Gary Larson's The Far Side included a panel with graffiti of a 555 number by which prank calls could be made to Satan. In Australia, 555 was at the time a standard exchange. The owner of the number became the subject of harassment, launching an unsuccessful lawsuit against Larson and his syndicate for defamation.
The number "555-2368" (or 311-555-2368) is a carryover from the "EXchange 2368" ("Exchange CENTral") number common in telephone advertisements as early as the 1940s. "555-2368" is phone number used by Jim Rockford in the TV series The Rockford Files (as seen during the opening credits), in the TV series The Mod Squad (episode: "And a Little Child Shall Bleed Them") and the Ghostbusters (as seen during their TV commercial within the film).
555 numbers are mentioned directly in the 1993 action film Last Action Hero, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Danny Madigan" (played by Austin O'Brien) tries to convince Schwarzenegger's character that he is inside a movie by pointing out the 555 exchange provides at most 9,999 available telephone numbers, insufficient for all the phone users in Los Angeles. Schwarzenegger's character replies that area codes would solve that problem and O'Brien's character drops the subject.
The use of 555 numbers helps to avoid use of valid numbers in works of fiction or entertainment, which is problematic. Tommy Tutone's song "867-5309/Jenny" and the cinematic release of Bruce Almighty displaying 776-2323 as a number to call God both led to misdialed calls in multiple area codes. God's number was changed to a 555 exchange prefix in the video release of the movie. "777-9311" by The Time used Dez Dickerson's actual telephone number at the time the song was written, causing his phone to ring off the hook until he had his number changed. The Alicia Keys song "Diary" contains a real number in New York's area code 347, an overlay, but does not indicate an area code; the same number in some other area code is a common misdial. Sony-owned Naughty Dog, makers of 2013 video game The Last of Us, were unaware that only 800-555-01XX is reserved, and they assigned 800-555-6784 and 800-555-2545 to a fictional pest control company. One number turned out to be Philadelphia phone sex spammer PrimeTel Communications, a phone sex operator.
Throughout North America, 1-XXX-555-1212 will connect to directory assistance for the specified XXX area code, 1-800-555-1212 will connect to directory assistance for all 1-800 numbers and 1-800-555-1111 will connect to a Bell Canada operator.
In the 1970s, dialing 555, at least in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, would bring one to a sort of party line known as "The Pipeline" whereby one could talk with others during the several-second intervals between a repeating recorded announcement to the effect that "The number you have dialed is not a working number. Please hang up and dial again."
In 1994, the North American Numbering Plan Administration began accepting applications for nationwide 555 numbers (outside the fictitious 555-01XX range). A number could be reserved in a single area code, a region or nationwide. In theory, a consumer from any area code could be invited to dial a seven-digit number such as 555-TAXI and the owners of that number could connect the call to a local car service. However, according to a 2003 New York Times article, the desired functionality requires the cooperation of local phone authorities, and most phone companies have been reluctant to cooperate. Despite the fact that the service is virtually unavailable so far, most of the available 555 numbers have already been reserved.
In 1996, Canadian telephone companies began promoting 555-1313 as "name that number", a pay-per-use reverse lookup which would give a subscriber name if the user entered an area code and a listed telephone number. The fifty-cent information number was initially heavily advertised in area codes +1-604 (BCTel), +1-416 (Bell Canada), +1-506 (NBTel), +1-902 (Maritime T&T) and +1-709 (Newfoundland Tel), but was soon forgotten once Internet sites began providing free reverse lookup tools.
Use of 555- for anything other than 555-1212 style information numbers raises the problem that call cost is unclear to consumers; in theory, the numbers could be anything from toll-free to premium. This complicates the provision of toll restriction to local subscribers.
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