An Arkansas company that provides information to marketers has amassed 135 million consumer telephone numbers--including about 20 million that are unlisted--to help identify and profile people who call toll-free lines to shop or make an inquiry.

When someone makes a toll-free call to a client of Acxiom Corp. of Conway, Ark., a telemarketing agent can learn who the caller is and where he or she lives, even before answering the call. The agent also can often find out the kind of home the caller lives in, the type of cars the people in that household drive, whether they exercise--even whether they own a cat.

This wealth of data takes advantage of a significant shift in the way that individuals shop and deal with businesses over the telephone, as well as the quickening convergence of databases of personal information, computer networks and telemarketing centers.

"When you put all of this together, it is some of the most sophisticated commercial high technology there is," said Rudy Oetting, senior partner in Oetting & Co. Inc., an industry consulting firm.

Over the past decade, the number of consumer calls to toll-free numbers operated by retailers and many others has nearly tripled to an estimated 24 billion a year, Oetting said. The number of calls into telemarketing centers now eclipses the number out to prospects' homes, he said.

One consequence: Telephone numbers, even many that individuals pay to keep unlisted, are fast becoming consumer tags, identifiers akin to household Social Security numbers.

Acxiom officials said most of the information about the 135 million consumer phone numbers is gleaned from telephone companies' white pages and directory service files, as well as other public sources that fuel the company's giant computer system, one of the largest private data repositories in the world.

Company officials won't detail exactly how they gather the 20 million unlisted numbers, which they said represent about half of all unlisted numbers in the nation. They acknowledged that some of the information comes from "self-reported sources." Industry specialists said that could include surveys, product registration cards and credit card applications. They also gather numbers from public records such as property data.

There are no laws prohibiting the collection of unlisted telephone information, according to officials at the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission. But Acxiom officials said they follow limitations recommended by the direct marketing industry and are respectful of consumer privacy.

For instance, Acxiom won't give out unlisted telephone numbers, officials said. And the company doesn't give out information about those numbers unless an individual calls a telemarketer. Acxiom officials, like others in the industry, believe consumers grant permission to gather and use information about them when they make toll-free calls and engage company agents.

"If a relationship has begun, [the telephone number] has become a part of the record," said Acxiom spokesman Dale Ingram. "If a consumer provides a number that's unpublished, and if we have a name and address, we'll provide it."

Acxiom does not share the personal information of people who have asked the company, industry groups or state officials to be excluded from marketing initiatives, officials said.

Acxiom and other industry officials say telemarketers use phone numbers and associated personal details to provide personalized services, tailor promotions and instantly distinguish profitable prospects or loyal customers from those seeking bargains. Marketers also use them to speed service to customers and prevent fraudulent transactions.

"It's the difference, perhaps, between hunting with a shotgun and hunting with a rifle," Rick Ferry, executive vice president for the Miami-based Precision Response Corp., said about the growing power to monitor and target certain callers for pitches.

But it also raises questions about whether consumers are being treated fairly, since many callers have no idea how information about them is being gathered and used, consumer advocates said. Even if someone wanted to block the identification of his home phone number, he can't. That's because the owner of a toll-free number has a right to know who is calling for billing purposes.

Nearly a third of Bell Atlantic's telephone customers in the District, a quarter of those in Maryland and one in five in Virginia pay up to $1.71 a month to restrict access to their telephone numbers, according to the company. Bell Atlantic officials expressed surprise such information was commercially available, since the company does not sell or share it.

"If a person has gone to every conceivable length to protect his name, address and telephone number, it seems terribly unfair," said David Butler, spokesman for Consumers Union, an advocacy group. "This is another example of how privacy rights are suffering because of the trend to push technology to its limits."

It's unclear whether any other company has as extensive a collection of unlisted numbers as Acxiom. But other information companies aggressively collect and use telephone numbers and data about callers.

Targus Information Corp. of Vienna, for one, provides a service called PhoneData Express service with the help of Acxiom, which the company says "allows you to append current name, address and other information to virtually every [U.S.] telephone number."

In recent years, retailers, cataloguers and other companies on their own have become quite adept in their use of toll-free lines and customer telephone numbers. Drug companies, for example, use toll-free numbers to attract patients and build databases.

In one recent campaign, Merck & Co. worked with football coach Dan Reeves to promote a booklet about heart disease. When individuals call to get the booklet, they are asked their names, addresses and a series of questions about age, health history, insurance coverage, and smoking and exercise habits--all of which go into a database.

Given the rapid pace of change, and the absence of laws governing the use of personal information, the industry has come up with its own rules governing the exchange of data.

Acxiom won't share information, for instance, until a "relationship" has started between a caller and company. When Acxiom appends personal information to a telephone number, most details generally do not appear on an agent's screen. Instead, officials said, the details prompt a computer to generate tailored scripts to guide the agent.

Those restrictions aren't good enough for consumer and privacy activists. They said many individuals can't be giving consent when they make a call, because they have no idea how information about them is being swept up and analyzed.

Most people still assume that a telephone call remains a simple, ephemeral transaction, according to Fordham University law professor Joel Reidenberg, author of several books about information privacy. Reidenberg believes marketers are using telephone numbers as a proxy for Social Security numbers, which a growing number of people refuse to share because of concerns about privacy.

"They can't go and ask you for your Social Security number," he said. "Instead, they're secretly taking your phone number and tagging your phone number."

Roy E. Green, legislative representative for the AARP, said he worries about the growing ability of marketers to quietly use personal data and computer-generated models to exclude people from offers for credit, insurance and the like.

"You're talking about, ultimately, discrimination," Green said. "Digital redlining."

Industry officials reject the notion that personal information is being collected surreptitiously, or that they're acting against the interests of their customers. But they acknowledge the industry's reluctance to highlight its growing technology prowess.

Faced with the choice of unnerving callers by demonstrating how much they know, or discreetly using the information to direct a conversation, telephone agents generally opt for the latter course. That's why the agents rarely greet callers by name at first.

"It gets people, including me, very nervous," said Gordon McKenna, president of the American Teleservices Association, an industry group, and chairman of TeleQuest Teleservices. He added that members of his group use personal information responsibly, even when being discreet.

Acxiom underscores the growing sophistication of its services in literature about the InfoBase Profiler, which can instantly provide call centers with a caller's name, personal details and household data "and is entirely transparent to the consumer."

For all the sophistication in the industry now, some specialists say this is just the beginning. Some telemarketing specialists are reaching out to the World Wide Web, where the ability to collect even more personal data is exploding. Precision Response Corp. enables some computer users to click on an icon and "call" marketing agents over the Web to discuss a product or service on a particular page.

Allen Hile, assistant director in the Federal Trade Commission's division of marketing practices, said this convergence will continue to dazzle consumers. But he cautioned that it may also expose them to scrutiny they don't understand or want.

"It has just gotten so hyped up because computers are so much more powerful and databases are so much more accessible," Hile said. "Nobody is disclosing 'Hey, we're collecting your info.' Nobody knows."

Getting More Than Your Number

Here is how Acxiom Corp. of Conway, Ark., uses a vast database of consumer home phone numbers to help telemarketing companies identify and profile callers.

1. Someone calls a toll -- free number.

2. Using caller ID, the call center for the toll-free number immediately identifies caller's home phone number (ID cannot be blocked when calling a toll-free number). The call center then typically asks the caller for his or her home number, either to verify the number from caller ID, or to get a number from someone not calling from home.

3. Number is downloaded.

4. The number, even if unlisted, is routed to Acxiom, which maintains a database of 135 million consumer phone numbers. Most are gathered from phone company white pages and 411-directory services. The unlisted numbers come from self-reported sources, such as consumer surveys, and public records, such as auto registrations.

5. If the database finds information associated with that number, it attaches the information and routes it back to the call center. This information may (but does not necessarily) include such things as the type of car in the caller's household, the value of the house, the range of income and how many children are in the household .

Percentage of unlisted phone numbers

Maryland: 24%

Virginia: 18%

D.C.: 30%

SOURCE: Bell Atlantic