Why Do Fake Phone Numbers Start With 555?

As soon as an actor in a movie or TV show starts rattling off a phone number, every viewer knows what the first three digits will be: 5-5-5. How did “555” become the convention for fake phone numbers, and are there any real 555 numbers? Let’s dial up some answers.

Why do TV and movies need the fake 555 numbers? Just ask anyone who had the misfortune of having the number 867-5309 how their life changed after Tommy Tutone's 15 minutes of fame. Apparently some tiny fraction of the population—we’re guessing a fraction that largely consists of adolescent boys—thinks it’s hilarious to call any number they see on the screen. To curb these nuisance calls, movies and shows have been using the fake 555 numbers since as far back as the 1950s. (In keeping with the old exchange-naming convention, back then it was “KLondike 5” or “KLamath 5.”)

It’s hard to pin down exactly how 555 became the go-to fake prefix for phone numbers. In the book Easy as Pi: The Countless Ways We Use Numbers Every Day, author Jamie Buchan speculates that the repeated digit may have made the combination memorable, which helped it gain traction. Buchan adds that since no major place names in the United States began with a combination of the letters J, K, and L (the letters assigned to the 5 key on a phone), the KLondike/KLamath prefix wasn’t exactly a coveted commodity.

Since the early 1970s there’s been at least one 555 number callers can dial and get an answer—555-1212 is a standard number that rings directory assistance. The rest of the 555 numbers have largely gained fame as fake numbers in movies and on TV. (The number 555-2368 has risen to particularly rarefied air, possibly because of the “2368” combo’s use in old phone ads. Dialing 555-2368 will get you the Ghostbusters, the hotel room from Memento, Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files, and Jaime Sommers from The Bionic Woman, among others.)

Real Fake Numbers

What you may not know, though, is that there are many more “real” 555 phone numbers. Since 1994, 555 numbers have actually been available for personal or business use. That’s when the North American Numbering Plan Administration started taking applications from people and businesses who wanted their own 555 numbers. Theoretically, these numbers would have worked from anywhere in the continent; dialers would be able to dial 555-XXXX and always end up with the same number regardless of area code. The hope was that if you needed, say, a taxi anywhere in the country, you could just remember one number that would always work.

Things didn’t work out quite so smoothly. People and businesses snapped up the 555 numbers —except for 555-0100 through 555-0199, which were held back for fictional use—but they soon learned that owning a phone number isn’t all that useful if you don’t also own a phone company that can connect the number. Phone companies protested that setting up these services would be wildly expensive; in 2003 Verizon told The New York Times that adding the nationwide 555 service to its systems would cost the company $108 million. (Verizon did offer to hook up the 555 numbers for owners, but the same Times story noted that the service usually required a $2,500 set-up fee per area code.)

Skeptics claimed that the phone companies were just dragging their feet so the 555 numbers didn’t sap cash away from 800 numbers. There may be some truth to that theory, but the 555 system still isn’t up and running in any meaningful way. The list of people and entities that own the numbers is a pretty amusing read, though. It’s mostly newspapers, hospitals, random people, and the state of Nevada.

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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