Why Do Toll-Free Numbers Start With 800?

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Businesses want your call, and a good way for them to get it is to make that call free. Back in the days of slow-returning rotary phones, long before the advent of “touch-tone,” engineers at Bell Labs were thinking hard about future call convenience. The system they devised—which includes 800 numbers—still stands today in this digital age of Skype, VoIP, and cell phones.

"COLLECT" AND "ZENITH" CALLING

Before toll-free numbers, the only way to call free of charge was to call collect. This reversed the charges so that the receiving party paid for the call, not the person placing it. Prior to toll-free numbers, some companies allowed collect calls from customers, but it was a cumbersome way to attract business because the call had to go through the operator.

In the 1950s, a “Zenith number” published and advertised by some companies got you straight through to the operator, who would then look up a big paper directory and place the equivalent of a collect call manually to the receiving number at the relevant area code. This was toll-free for the customer, but certainly far from hassle-free.

NORTH AMERICAN NUMBERING PLAN (NANP)

Developed by Bell and AT&T in the 1940s, the NANP divided North America into 86 numbering areas defined by three-digit codes, beginning with area code 201 (New Jersey) and ending with area code 916 (far-northern California). They cleverly arranged the NANP so that the largest population areas were the quickest to dial on a rotary phone. Utah was assigned 801, but none of the regular area codes ended in a 0, as the astute Bell engineers had kept those ranges aside for special purposes.

Later, these reserved “non-geographic number” ranges—including the magic 800—would come into their own. Why 800, specifically? Probably because the number 8 corresponded with the letter T, for “Toll-free,” on a standard phone dial.

INWATS AND AUTOMATED COLLECT CALLING

In the early 1960s, Ken Looloian, AT&T’s head of planning, had a clever idea to cut costs by using electronic switching. In 1967, AT&T rolled out its long-distance “Inward Wide Area Telephone Service” (InWATS) nationwide. With InWATS, businesses and organizations could “subscribe” (for an expensive, fixed-rate line fee) and receive a number from the toll-free range.

Because of the high cost—ensured by AT&T’s initial monopoly on the service—only large call volume outfits, such as Sheraton and National Data Corp., went for it at first. And it was still a primitive setup by today’s standards. Toll-free numbers were tied to specific geographic areas, forcing serious “subscribers” to pay for up to 20 numbers if they wanted to cover the entire U.S.

Nevertheless, the InWATS service meant that customers could at last direct-dial companies via 800 numbers. Thanks to the automated switching equipment, what was effectively a collect call paid for by the subscriber no longer required operator assistance. This was great news for customers, but probably not so peachy for those polite, trusty, jack-plugging operators.

ENTER THE OTHER MR. 800

The costly, clumsy system was slow to catch on until, in the mid-'70s, AT&T engineer Roy Weber made a big breakthrough in toll-free calling technology. Though computer-controlled digital switching was still in its infancy, Weber’s bold concept (which his supervisor thought was a “dumb idea”) was to point non-geographic numbers at database files. In this way, a number could act as an index code to pull up a specific file, which could then instruct the switchgear to route the call correctly to anywhere. (Unfortunately for Mr. Weber’s pocketbook, AT&T Bell Labs took on the patent rights to all their employees’ inventions there.)

THE 800 AND VANITY NUMBER BOOM

In the early 1980s, using Weber’s insight, AT&T centralized its databases. This was the spark that lit the 800 boom, as it meant that companies could now have a single, nationwide 800 number instead of multiple, state-specific ones. The 800 number became a mark of prestige for companies, and competitive pressures ensured that the service flourished.

It wasn’t long before subscribers got imaginative with their toll-free numbers, choosing catchy “phoneword” combinations, like 800-FLOWERS or 800-COOKIES. These “vanity number” combinations were easier for customers to remember than were long strings of digits. And thanks to touch-tone phones, they were now quick to dial, no matter where they would have landed on the dial of an old rotary phone.

In 1993, 800 numbers became truly portable, no longer tied to a particular carrier. This gave subscribers a much greater choice of memorable and vanity numbers. Due to huge demand, new U.S. toll-free prefixes now include 888, 877, 866, 855 and 844, as well as the original 800.

A WORLD OF 800

Gradually, countries the world over adopted the convention of using an 800 prefix to designate toll-free numbers. An early pioneer of reverse-charge calling and automatic switching, the UK used 0800 for its “Linkline” (later, “freephone”) service which began in 1985 through British Telecom.

In order to free up the greatly prized 0800, BT transferred it across from its previous incarnation as the area code for the remote village of Tongue in the far north of Scotland. Kind of appropriate, in a strange sort of way.

What Happens If I Don't Pay My Taxes on Time?

Marco Verch Professional Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Marco Verch Professional Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While death and taxes may be the only true certainties in life, somehow Tax Day always seems to sneak up on us. So what happens if tax season slips your mind, and you just don't file anything?

It depends. If you already know you're not going to get your taxes done by Tax Day, you can file for an extension. You can get an extra six months to file federal taxes by filling out a form and estimating (and paying) how much you'll owe for that year.

While you may be granted a filing extension, you are still required to pay your taxes by the regular due date: If you don't hand the IRS at least an estimated amount by April 15, you'll be charged a fee equal to .5 percent of the tax you owed in the first place per month it was left unpaid (up to 25 percent). If you ignore repeated notices from the IRS, that .5 percent increases to 1 percent per month. And you'll have to pay interest on the money you haven't given over (3 percent plus the federal short-term rate, which changes every three months, compounded each day).

If you don't file any federal income tax return at all by mid-April, you'll be slapped with a fine—5 percent of the amount you already owe for each month you're overdue, up to 25 percent. If you file your return more than two months late without a good excuse, you'll pay a minimum of $135 in penalty fees, or the balance of the tax you owe, if that total is less than $135. (According to the IRS's website, "The total penalty for failure to file and pay can be 47.5 percent [22.5 percent late filing and 25 percent late payment] of the tax owed.")

If you do a little math, you'll see that it usually pays to go ahead and file your return or get an extension, even if you can't pay your taxes immediately. Here's how Turbotax explains it:

Example: Let's say you didn't file your return or an extension by April 15, and you still owe the IRS an additional $1000.

Scenario 1: You file an extension on or before April 15 and pay your $1000 bill on April 25 (10 days late). Your penalty would be $5 (the 0.5 percent late-payment penalty applied to $1000), plus another dollar or so for the interest.

Scenario 2: You didn't file an extension, and you file your return on April 25 (10 days late) along with your $1000 payment. Your penalty would be $50 (the 5 percent late-filing penalty applied to $1000), plus another dollar or so for the interest.

Scenario 3: You file your return five years late, along with your $1000 payment. Your penalty would be around $534 (the maximum late-filing penalty of 25 percent applied to $1000, plus 5 percent interest compounded daily assuming the interest rate doesn't change).

If you don't owe any taxes because your employer withheld more than necessary and you are due to get a tax refund, you have three years to file your taxes before the IRS will keep that money. So as long as you get around to it by April 2022, you'll still get that money back. After those three years, the IRS will keep your whole refund, and it won't count toward next year's tax bill, either.

Say you just don't want to pay your taxes (a crime, just to be clear). How long before the IRS will come after you?

If your penalties and back-taxes add up to more than $25,000, someone from the IRS is going to come knocking at your door. In 2016, the IRS investigated 206 people for regularly failing to file their taxes, and put 159 people in jail for an average of three years. (Remember, it was the IRS that took down Al Capone.)

If you are a chronic non-filer and don't file your taxes even after warnings from the IRS, the government will go ahead and estimate what you owe, calculating what's called a "substitute for return." This total doesn't include deductions that you might have been eligible for, meaning that if you let the government do your taxes for you, you'll probably end up with a heftier bill.

And that's just at the federal level. While states vary on how they treat people who don't file their taxes, they slap penalties and interest on late returns and payments, too. Some states will even take your federal tax refund to pay your state back taxes. However, in many states, being approved for a federal tax extension also gets you an automatic extra six months on your state income taxes.

The lesson: If there's any chance you'll be late filing your return this year, ask for an extension ASAP.

A version of this story was first published in 2016.

Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?

Toby Melville, WPA Pool/Getty Images
Toby Melville, WPA Pool/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 93 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 8, 2019, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or colours—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

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

This story has been updated for 2019.

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