Is it legal to buy and sell numbers?

Here’s an email with a question I got recently that I think other people may run into and should be addressed here:

Bill, could you please answer this question: is it legal for a person to stockpile lots of toll free numbers and re-sell them to the highest bidder? I’m talking about a man who has hundreds of numbers who then tries to sell them for a hundred thousand dollars or to lease them for thousands of dollars per month. Is this legal?

Thanks for the question, Grassroots. First of all, I’m not a lawyer. I avoid lawyers as much as possible. I can give you some general input about the industry but if you have need a real legal answer you need to talk to a real legal person, called an attorney.
selling 800 numbers?
There are regulations are against “hoarding and warehousing.” The regulations are designed to prevent the type of squatting and resale that you see with domain names. Basically the way I interpret that is that you can’t be in the business of buying and selling phone numbers which is kind of like saying that you can’t be a car dealer if it were the automotive industry. But that isn’t the same thing as saying you can’t ever sell your car. Just because I want to sell my car, which I got for legitimate business reasons, not for the purpose of reselling, that doesn’t make me a car dealer even if I get paid for it.

The people who say “its illegal to sell numbers” never quote any regulation because there is no regulation (or law). And almost always have ulterior motives too. They want you to have to “rent” a number from them because they know that the more you advertise THEIR number the more at their mercy you become.

This leads to the ways that number “brokers” (which I politely call Squatters, to avoid reminding them that what they are doing is illegal) get around the regulations. The most common loop hole they hide in is that they are “renting” or “leasing” their numbers. They usually do this in conjunction with regional routing so that they can theoretically rent numbers to multiple different people or at least keep one small part, even if it’s just Canada, or Alaska or something, for themselves. In reality many “shared use” companies have a small percent of their numbers active for a customer (hoarding?) and an even smaller percent with more than one customer (which isn’t really shared use then is it?).

Another way they get around the regulations is that they combine a toll free number with a domain name and then they are selling a marketing package, business concept or even an existing business. It’s hard to dispute that it’s legal to sell a business with a phone number since it would be impossible to say that you can’t include the business phone numbers when a business is sold. But like any loop hole, if you are doing something just to get around a law by a technicality, that doesn’t make it right or totally legit either.

It’s probably also helpful to point out that all of the regulations are aimed at the seller, not the buyer, because the buyers are big phone companies (can you think of a big phone company that doesn’t have a good vanity number – you don’t think they got them without paying someone do you?) or really big companies in almost every industry.

In reality however, if there’s nobody enforcing a regulation than it doesn’t matter very much how thin of an excuse they give. And that has certainly been the case for many years, but doesn’t mean the FCC won’t wake up and start enforcing that tomorrow. I believe there are pressures that may change in the future and my advice is always to pretend that everything you do is being watched. That’s because even if nobody’s paying any attention right now, they can always go back and look at the history of transfers, even years from now.

I believe the biggest conflicts and problems arise when the lines get blurred between phone companies and end users or owners. When vanity number businesses which claim to be the “owners” or end users become Resporgs or responsible organizations so they can get numbers directly from the pool, or when Resporgs start to act like “end users” it tends to create a conflict. They want to combine the rights of the end user with the power of a phone company but in the end, they almost always end up cheating the system, claiming it’s OK because of some technicality and ultimately hurting the consumer, which I think is the point to your question.

How do I fit into the equation? I admit that I don’t fit into the normal mold or models that most other companies follow. I’m essentially the only toll free number “search service.” I charge a small one time “search fee” to help end users find good numbers. I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop a unique system to find better numbers faster and easier than any other phone company. Regular phone companies don’t charge anything up front to get a number not because that doesn’t cost them anything, but because they make their money from the ongoing use. I don’t provide the ongoing service. That is fine, but it doesn’t give regular phone companies any incentive to help their customers get a good or better numbers, which is why regular phone companies tend to do a lousy job of helping customers.

That’s also why there’s such a need for our service. I don’t charge anything up front to do the search. Instead I just charge a small one time “search fee” only if we find a number that the end user wants. We activate the number faster than anyone else, give them better proof of ownership than anyone else, we give them free temporary service to get it started and then transfer the numbers to whatever company they want to use it with. It’s also important to point out that I do NOT blur the line combining phone company capabilities with end user rights.

I’m NOT “selling” numbers any more than your local phone company is selling you a local phone number simply because they charge a set up fee, even when no physical work is needed beyond flipping a switch in the phone company. I don’t charge for numbers based on their value. Even our premium numbers are a flat fee based on the category they are in, and the vast majority of my fees are for just $49 and we are never transferring a number that we “own” to someone else. We are merely activating a number for the “customer” or “end user” like any other phone company. Our fee is technically a “Search fee” because that’s what we spend 90% of our time and resources for. That’s also why people come to and use our site, to “search.”

Regular phone companies follow what I call a “hosting” business model because they are making their money from the ongoing service or use of the number. That makes sense because the ongoing service is much more expensive than my one time “search fee”. But as a marketer, I know that the number makes a greater difference to the bottom line success of your marketing than the difference from one phone company to another. Regular phone companies don’t understand that. And no regular phone company could afford to invest and develop the type of system that I have just for their customers. So it makes good business sense to separate the number searching from the ongoing use, at least for the customers you really want a better number.

Another interesting Forbes article from a while ago also talked about the big money in toll free numbers and how the FCC is standing in the way of that.

I think this answer went a little beyond the initial intent of the question but I just want be clear and up front about as much as possible even in an industry of people who tend to use the shadows to get away with things that aren’t exactly right. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t get a number from whoever you want. I personally think that toll free numbers should probably be able to be bought and sold more openly. But my mission is just try to help as many people get good numbers as fairly and efficiently as possible.

-Bill

35 thoughts on “Is it legal to buy and sell numbers?”

  1. From what I am understanding after researching this a little bit, is that it is YOU Bill Quimby that is skirting the law by selling toll free numbers for a fee – this is contrary to the FCC policy.

    Perhaps you are getting away with it, like you said because you are operating in a niche market, so no one is watching you. But from your writings, it definantly sounds like YOU are the one that is doing something illegal.

    You have NO service to offer except registration of a ‘vanity’ number for me for a fee of $49.99. Without paying that fee (or a higher one) then you will not allow me to obtain a toll free number. Is that correct?

    Apparently you have become your own ‘RESPORG’ for the sole purpose of selling vanity phone numbers.

  2. Jill,

    I’m glad you wrote this comment. I started to respond to it, but there was just too much to say about your comments here so I made a whole new post right from your comment here. Take a look at
    http://www.tollfreenumbers.com/blogs/are-we-skirting-the-law-or-selling-numbers.html

    Please note that I didn’t change or alter your comments in any way. I just showed how they are clearly and completely wrong in so many ways. I simply destroyed them with clear logic and showed them to be utterly rediculous. It’s not personal, it’s just that you are making serious false allegations that deserve to be defended, not require a strong response.

  3. It turns out that “Jill” or whoever he or she really is, is a comment spammer from Houston Texas using theplanet.com. His or her IP address is 74.52.215.194 and here’s their Google results for “74.52.215.194″

    They also posted negative feedback about our new video here too.

    I’ll leave it up because I’ve already used that as a jumping off point for the other post. But I wanted to mention that because it does explain his or her attitude a little and show how shallow her comments are.

  4. Hi Mark,

    Unfortnately there is no central site or place to go to sell numbers. Several people list them on ebay, but how many they actally sell is a different thing, because most have very little traffic let alone any bids.

    If you’re going to list them on ebay which is probably the easiest way, you have to do some type of direct promotion too because I don’t think you can rely on the amount of people that happen to wander through that are looking for that particular number. Try doing some classified advertising in the back of an industry trade publication that targets your audience. Or do some PR and get an article or mention of it in something. Go to a convention for the industry your number fits for and hand out business cards with it on it.

    Some people in the vanity number business make websites, which can be helpful if you’re good at building websites. The more collateral material you make the better, because in many ways it’s only worth what you make it appear to be worth. A nice logo and a domain name definitely make it worth more, but don’t do all of this for a mediocre name.

    Some of this ties in with an article I’m working on about how to maximize the value of a number, which is also what you’re trying to do when you want to sell it.

  5. Does anyone have the specific FCC citation with respect to selling telephone numbers…the exact document name, page and reference? This will make the alleged regulations a lot easier to find and evaluate.

  6. Hi Ken,

    For a nice numeric number you might be able to just list it on ebay. I don’t think vanity numbers for specific niches work very well on ebay because they appeal to too small of a market. Ebay is big, but if you have a good number for hair removal for instance, the amount of people on ebay that will see your listing isn’t that high and when you figure the percentage of people that are in the business of hair removal it drops to almost nothing.

    The difficult part of nice numeric numbers is that they don’t have a target audience but you have a higher likelihood of someone being interested in a nice numeric number in a non-targeted audience like ebay. Ebay could be slightly targeted if you have the right keywords in the listing, but its just not the place that people go to when they’re looking for a toll free number. But unfortunately there isn’t really any central spot to offer numbers.

    Bill

  7. Bill, I hope you are still responding to this blog, I have recently been contacted about one of my 800 # that I have been using for 20 years, the number does not mean anything to me as I now have a new 800 # that is vanity # for my company. This individual wants to buy my old # because of what it spells. Can I legally sell it if he contacted me? Please keep in mind I would never have thought of selling it until I was contacted.

    Thank you

  8. Dear Help Needed,

    You’re the epitomy of when it’s appropriate to give up your number and totaly reasonable to be compensated for doing so. You’re not allowed to go into the business of buying and selling numbers. But just because someone asks to buy your car, doesn’t make you a car dealer.

    As long as you think the price and amount is appropriate, go for it. You weren’t using it and they will be able to turn the otherwise unused item, into a valuable asset to their organization. So it’ll be good for you, for them, and the consumer. You had it for legitimate business purposes and didn’t get it for the purpose of selling it.

    Bill Quimby

  9. Someone is calling and harrassing me via an 800 number. The phone rings and it hangs up as I have my answering machine on. Then I call *69 and get the call back number. I call it and get some conversation about music and hold on as operators are busy and they keep telling you to hold on and on and on and you never get connected and then you just hang up. How can these calls be traced? Or can I go to the FCC and get some help. This person keeps changing the 800 to 866 or 888.

  10. Hello,

    I have a cell phone number that gets calls all the time looking for a Spanish Business. Turns out there is a 1-800 number version of my cell phone, but I get regular calls daily on my cell phone number looking for the 1-800 business. I think they are based in my area code. How much should I sell my number for. It is a major company that broadcasts on a major network. I am not a greedy person, but I have often thought of selling this number as I am bombarded daily with wrong numbers, and they often add up my cell phone minutes. I feel like some sort of compensation should be headed my way. I support a family of four with a very meager salary, one that has been cut over the last 3 years and will be cut 5 percent next year. What is fair for my number?

  11. Hi Smith,

    I don’t what the calls would be worth to them. If it’s a big company the hard part is getting their attention. It would probably be hard to get more than a token payment of a couple hundred bucks and probably wouldn’t be worth the effort. If it’s a real problem, I would make a couple calls, but if they don’t bite, just change the number, and don’t worry too much about it.

    Bill Quimby

  12. OK, from what I understand if I have a vanity number for my business and I eventually find I no longer need that business (closed up) then I am allowed to sell it.

    BUT HOW?

    What do I do to sell a number? There’s nothing tangible here, what does it mean to sell it? Can I just scribble “Bob Jones now owns 1-800-8000″ on a napkin and sign it? Wouldn’t my ownership of this number be registered somewhere?

  13. I have had my personal cell phone number for 8+ years. So many times when I give it out I am told its a great number and asked if it is a business no.
    Its just a regular area code number and its not an 800 no. Thinking about selling it. Comments? Ideas on how to sell it?
    Thanks – just happened on this site.

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