San Francisco, a city with no shortage of status symbols, has just gained another: the 415 area code. Like New York's 212 before it, phone companies are mixing a new, dare-we-say ugly area code, 628, in for new numbers. But there's no need to panic. As with all status symbols in San Francisco and elsewhere, a 415 number can be yours, for a price.
Ed Mance operates PhoneNumberGuy.com from the city. He started the company when he was looking for a business he was setting up and wanted to get a set of numbers that shared a common prefix. He couldn't find any. Once he figured out how to get groups of numbers (a quest that took him several years), he found a marketplace waiting. At first he sold numbers on eBay; now he sells them by the thousands each year from his Web site.
415 was a "sizable market" even before the appearance of 628, Mance told me when we spoke by phone this week. But it's not the most in-demand area code. "310" -- Los Angeles -- "right off the bat, are the hardest numbers to secure. They're extremely rare. People can't get a 310, even a random 310 anymore." Instead, they're stuck with LA's version of 628, 424. "Nobody wants a 424," Mance said, "especially if they're in business."
Other popular area codes: 214 (Dallas), 312 (Chicago), 305 (Miami), 404 (Atlanta), 818 (Hollywood), and 626 (Pasadena). These are "original area codes," as Mance put it, in that they were the first area codes in use in the city.
Usually, when area codes were more tightly tied to location, a city would introduce a new area code by issuing it to numbers away from the city center. Houston's rapid growth meant that it eventually had to overlay a third area code, 832, over both its original 713 and additional 281. Downtown maintained its cachet. "A Houston area attorney that is in downtown," Mance said, "absolutely insists on 713."
Mance doesn't buy numbers from random people. You can't just call either and say, hey, I have a 310, what can I get for that? and get a response. He usually buys in bulk from companies that don't need the numbers any more. Mance offered three reasons why. He used to buy numbers, but was burned by people who didn't actually transfer the number. The numbers could be stolen. Or the number could get too many unwanted calls. "The last one I bought on spec," he said, "they told me it gets 1 to 2 errant calls a week. As soon as I plugged it in, the phone started ringing off the hook." EBay, he noted, stopped allowing telephone number sales several years ago due to similar complaints.
These are the most expensive numbers for sale on Mance's site.
Mance's biggest sale was a "nine-of-a-kind" number -- (XYX) XXX-XXXX. He sold that for $95,000. (His numbers usually go for $299 to $799.) Day's biggest was a number that ended in 00000, which got him $16,000.
In this day and age, many people don't even know the phone numbers of their spouses or parents. Just hit auto-dial on the smartphone. But historically, larger cities had smaller numbers in their original area codes because they were easier to dial on rotary phones.
The smallest area code, 212, belongs to -- no surprise -- New York City. Mance doesn't stock a lot of 212 area codes, because they're hard to get.
But David Day does. He runs 212AreaCode.com, which provides precisely the service you'd expect. Day got into the business the way Mance did: He had some numbers and put them on eBay. "We saw the demand on eBay was more than we anticipated," he said, so he opened his own site. He's now selling several dozen a week.
If you want a 212 area code, a random number will cost you about $75 from Day. But here's the thing: Most people don't want a random number. For many buyers, the rest of the number is more important than the area code.
"The ones who are area code sensitive are typically businesses," Mance said, like that Houston attorney. "There is a second stream of people that are buying numbers because they like the sequence of the numbers or the digits in them, and they really don't care about area code." He offered an example in the 626 area code, in Pasadena. The area has many Chinese buyers who will buy a number "only with 8, because it's good luck. Anything with a 4 in it I can't sell, because it's bad luck."
A scan of the numbers offered for sale at Mance's site shows the sorts of thing that are interesting to people. Many of the numbers have the last four digits as a multiple of a thousand -- XXX-3000, etc. Others are repeated digits or sequences, XXX-2222 or XXX-1234.
Many spell out words. "HURT and PAIN are the two most in-demand numbers," Mance said, since they're desired by personal injury attorneys. Other popular words include LAWYERS, LIMO, ROOF, HOME, CARS, and CASH.
One thing that doesn't inspire sales are exchanges, the three digits at the start of a seven-digit phone number. Day sells a lot of Manhattan numbers but no one looks for CHelsea 2 (242-) or OXford 5 (695-). Every so often, he'll get someone looking for BUtterfield 8, the exchange that served as the title for a popular Liz Taylor movie.
For any San Franciscans who might be reading, PhoneNumberGuy.com has a slew of 415 area code numbers for sale. For only $199, for example, you could be the owner of (415) 423-COOL. You have to admit that it has a better ring to it than (628) 423-2665.
Correction: This post originally reversed the order of introduction for Houston's area codes.