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Calling Cell Numbers: Part One

(Updated June 2017) This article was originally published in 2012. The inspiration for an update is two-fold: (1) The uber-annoyed reaction my nephew and his mom have when they get sales calls on their mobile phone. (2) The angst often displayed in LinkedIn sales group posts over whether to call cell phone numbers. Part one of the update deals with why it’s silly to be annoyed at all, part two covers how to handle such reactions.

Many people are extra-irritated when they get a cold call on their cell phone. How did the caller get that oh-so-special-number!? What kind of evil conspiracy is afoot and how do you report these dastardly callers? Before you dash off an angry email to, um…somebody… you need to know a bit about the history of telephone directories.

Long, long ago, before internet and email, only super heroes had phones in their cars and there was one phone company. Yes, you read that correctly. One. Phone. Company.

When people needed to find a phone number for a person or a business, they would dial – actually dial – a zero and ask the human who answered, “May I have the phone number for the Woolworth’s on First Street?” “Do you have a listing for a Shawn Greene in Livermore?” This was how we found contact information.

The number for directory assistance was later changed to 411. Whether we dialed one digit or three, the ability to find phone numbers all over the U.S. was an important, convenient, service most people very much appreciated and often relied upon.

Brave New Laws

Above, I mentioned we once had just one phone company. In 1984, the U.S. Justice Department declared that single phone company to be an illegal monopoly and it was forced to break up into “baby Bells.” (Ma Bell, named for Alexander Graham Bell, was the monopoly’s nickname.) As you might imagine, there was a good deal of wrangling behind the scenes before that break-up took place. Ma Bell fought it, and the companies which wanted to have their own piece of the booming telecommunications pie pushed for it.

The Justice Department worried about the effect the break-up would have on consumers and businesses. Would costs actually go down? (No.) How would customers find the dime store downtown versus the one near the high school? How would we find Aunt Mabel’s number? That particular concern led to this deal: almost any company that wanted to be in the telecommunications biz would be permitted to do that as long as they agreed to share their phone directories.

The phone companies did not want to share customer information but they had no choice. As a result, we could still find Aunt Mabel even if we called from a Pacific Bell phone line and her phone service was with Qwest. We could still get the number for Woolworth’s Five and Dime: the one on First Street and the one on Aspen Ave. Hooray for continued convenience!

Cell Phones Arrive on Scene

Fast-forward a bunch of years. Woolworth’s is no more. As cellular signals get figured out, mobile phones become more possible. The telecommunications companies think, Hmm…this could be a nifty money maker. Let’s add cell phone service to our business.

Remember the regulations that said phone companies must share customer information with each other so consumers can easily get it? Well, cellular telephone services are not governed by the exact same laws. In fact, some laws require a telecommunications company’s cell phone services be separate from other phone services. These laws of separation were intended to prevent a few companies from monopolizing telecommunications (I will pause here so you can stop laughing). These laws also created the situation where we have to talk to one service rep about our ‘home’ phone and another for our cell phone. Boo for this inconvenience!

But it’s Not about Protecting Privacy

And here’s the thing: Your ability to keep your cell number secret is not due to a phone company protecting your privacy — they’re protecting their profits. The law that said phone companies must share phone number listings for consumer convenience does not apply to cell phone numbers.

So how did your oh-so-secret-cell-number get called?

You filled out a contact form. You bought something online. You registered that new chainsaw, iPod, or refrigerator. You put an App or twenty-five Apps on your smart phone… Get the picture?

Somewhere, at some time, you provided your phone number. The list-compilers, telemarketers, and auto-dialing machines do not know it is a magical cell phone number. It’s just a phone number to them and they called it. Which leads us to the other side of the phone line and this question: should you call a number when you know it’s a cell number?

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