I spotted this discussion, which focuses on the question of what shows up on caller ID when one receives a call from a payphone. It got me thinking.
Calls from payphones can show up on caller ID in a variety of ways. If I call a cell phone from a New York City payphone it shows only the number of the phone, and the state from which the call originated (New York), nothing else. No UNAVAILABLE or UNKNOWN, just the number and the state name. The same was true when my girlfriend called from a New Jersey payphone a couple of weeks ago. It just showed the number and “New Jersey”.
I don’t know exactly when this changed but calls from NYC payphones used to show up on caller ID as “PAYPHONE”, followed by the number of the phone. This is no longer true but the appearance of the word “PAYPHONE” on caller ID was never consistent so maybe that identifier will return.
Occasionally a payphone call shows up as “undisclosed_pstn” or “+NoNumber” but I don’t know that those obfuscated caller IDs are unique to payphones.
An element of intrigue that might interest others whose written or visual work includes payphones is that payphone service providers — the folks who own and maintain pay telephones — are able to program the number that shows up on caller ID to whatever they want. As far as I know they cannot program the text portion of caller ID to show up as “PAYPHONE” or something descriptive like “7-11 PAYPHONE” but they can (and frequently do) send out bogus telephone number info. I’ve never understood why they do this, but I was once unwittingly responsible for a payphone service provider being ordered to reprogram thousands of its phones to send out accurate phone numbers to caller ID. On account of the memorable encounter I had with a representative from that company I’ve maintained an interest in this rather obscure matter.
The most commonly used fake caller ID associated with payphones in the U.S. is 702-992-9550. Most calls made today from Boston area payphones show that number, causing many unwitting people to think the person calling is in Las Vegas. It’s a source of confusion and mistrust as people making the calls are accused of being in Vegas when they are actually in a Boston train station or at any number of places across the country. Thousands of U.S. payphones send out 702-992-9550 as caller ID. (Incidentally, the “Who Called Me From 702-992-9550?” story is one of the most frequently viewed pages at the Payphone Project, and has been since I posted it over 2 years ago. I guess these seemingly strange payphone calls continue to ring caller ID enabled phones across the land.)
The discussion of using phone numbers in creative work reminded me of the distractingly unrealistic way filmmakers employ the fictitious 555-555-1234 format when using phone numbers in their movies. Using a number like 702-992-9550 would look more credible than the 555 format, which always annoys me for its obvious lack of realism. Of course if the film is not set in Las Vegas then a new level of inauthentic detail emerges. Still, with a little research I think moviemakers could come up with more clever alternatives to the fictitious 555 format, helping to keep it real for moviegoers should they actually call the number. There are far more pressing issues facing our society but I think it is time for television and movie to come up with more creative approaches to eliminating the 555 blight.1