Premium numbers but not a premium service • The Register


When calling Welcome to On Call, and a phone puzzle wasn’t solved until an innocent participant found himself at the end of a highly unexpected conversation.

Our story, by a reader called “Des”, takes place in the last years of the 20th century and concerns an IVR platform developed by him.

IVR, or Interactive Voice Response, was the vague name for what was then the exciting new technology that allowed you to press digits on your phone to interact with a system on the other end of the line. Perhaps to leave a voicemail, place an order, or interact with a range of premium services.

Sure, such systems had been around for a while, but technological advances back then made all kinds of creative endeavors possible. Unfortunately, the speech recognition was a bit rudimentary, but the tones emitted by the keys would normally be sufficient.

Furthermore, he had sold a version of his platform to one of the British “premium rate” players. He was immersed in a 60-line system. Two E1 racetracks and a block of 0208 numbers have been assigned. The customer had purchased a number of premium numbers and had them forwarded to these 0208 numbers. A simple system – customers dial the still expensive number and are automatically connected to the desired service.

“This type of offer was aimed at single men and was advertised in such lofty publications as Sunday Sports,” Des said sensitively.

Everything went smoothly until the inevitable support call came in.

“Apparently a company in London had complained that they were receiving calls from people who called one of these premium rate numbers,” Des told us. “The callers were pretty upset that they weren’t getting what they paid for, and the company receptionist was just as upset with the types of calls she had to take.”

We can only imagine.

The premium numbering company insisted that their routing was fine, so Des investigated further.

“I called the premium tariff number and was put through to their rightly excited receptionist.”

OK – so the calls definitely went to the wrong place. Not so much sultry Southwark, more Angry of Angmering.

Working with the receptionist, Des began to fix the problem: when did the problems start? What happened? What was the phone number the receptionist answered …?

Aha. The number was identical to one of the numbers routed to the IVR platform, except that it was in inner (as it was then) London (0207) rather than the outer London area code (0208).

Then he dialed the company number directly and instead of the angry receptionist he found himself on a completely different phone call. A little more, uh, specialist.

He called the US telephone company to explain that they had succeeded in something the subsequent British governments had failed and swapped inner and outer London.

“Quite understandable,” he added, “after all, they were Americans.”

Shortly thereafter, normal operations were resumed. The receptionist was spared unwanted calls, and the callers? One can only hope that they got the satisfaction they were looking for.

Telephone number routing can seem like magic to the uninitiated. But at least the on-call number is not routed to a premium line. Or does it do that? Confess it all with an email to On Call. ®

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