NEW YORK —
"I guess enough people go for it that it makes business sense," said Aelea Christofferson, president of ATL Communications, another company that specializes in toll-free services. Capturing callers who have reached the wrong number — whether because they punched an incorrect digit or dialed a number without realizing it had changed hands — is a "big new industry," she said.
Founded in 1995, PrimeTel is one of around 400 companies registered as toll-free service providers for the U.S. and Canada. That gives it the same power to reserve and assign unused toll-free numbers as big phone companies with millions of customers. But PrimeTel appears to be amassing numbers predominantly for one closely related partner, National A-1.
There is nothing illegal about using toll-free phone services to promote adult entertainment, and callers aren't charged unless they supply their credit card information.
Over the years, though, PrimeTel has been hit with lawsuits and complaints alleging that it is violating federal rules banning toll-free service providers from hoarding digits. Federal Communications Commission rules say that "routing multiple toll-free numbers to a single toll-free subscriber" is usually considered hoarding.
The FCC has never taken formal action against PrimeTel or National A-1, although federal authorities have expressed renewed interest lately in companies that handle toll-free numbers. In the fall, authorities sent subpoenas to several, including PrimeTel, asking for information on how they acquire numbers and why.
And in October, federal agents and Philadelphia police spent two days removing records from National A-1's office suite, although it is unclear if the action was related to the phone business.
The man listed on many government records as the top executive at both PrimeTel and National A-1, Richard Cohen, declined interview requests. A lawyer for both companies, Charles Helein, would not discuss their business dealings in detail but said PrimeTel isn't breaking any rules or engaging in prohibited practices such as selling numbers or obtaining ones it doesn't intend to use.