In the days before smartphones, there were special "premium rate" phone numbers that one could call to receive a specialized service, at a rate above the normal telephone fee. This service could be literally anything: adult chat lines, psychic readings, sports statistics, weather reports, stock reports, polls, even the chance to talk to a favorite celebrity or fictional character. note (They are most known for the adult chat lines or the Phony Psychics, often advertised on late-night cable TV after the Watershed/Safe Harbor, as well as the Shockingly Expensive Bill of a call.) The extra fee would be billed either per call or per minute to the customer either via their phone company, or billed to a credit or debit card submitted by the customer at the beginning of the call. They were colloquially referred to in the US and Canada, at least, as "nine-hundred numbers", because when they first appeared, they used area code 900, dialed as 1-900-(the rest of the number). 900 was a "choke exchange"- that is, a code that was used to keep large volumes of calls from bogging down the phone systems. The code worked by ensuring that only a certain number of people per local exchange area would be able to get through at any given moment. They were intended to be no more expensive than any other type of long-distance call. (Local premium-rate phone numbers had the "976" prefix.)
These phone numbers first appeared in 1971, but the first known usage was by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 for a phone-in Talk Show known as Ask President Carter. In 1992, the US Congress passed a law that required the phone companies to block all 900 numbers that provided adult content, unless the consumer wrote the company and requested access to a specific number. (Which not many people, even those desperate for that type of conversation, were willing to do.) Many of the adult chatlines were rendered non-functional or switched to "toll-free" numbers instead, where they could bill customers via credit/debit card, rather than going through the phone companies.
During The '80s and The '90s, it was not uncommon for 900 numbers to be advertised to children during Saturday Morning Cartoons, offering them the chance to talk to their favorite character. However, in the mid-90s, after receiving complaints from parents whose children dialed the numbers with no idea that their parents would have to pay extra, laws were passed in the US concerning these numbers. (Other countries may have similar laws.) These laws require that:
- The vendor that uses this number provide a (usually automated) disclaimer at the beginning of the call, explaining that this is a premium rate phone number, and that the customer will be billed X amount per minute.
- After that disclaimer is read, the customer must have a minimum 3-second period during which they may end the call without incurring any charges.
- Telecommunications companies provide consumers with the ability to block calls to these numbers, as well as the ability to dispute or contest any errors in billing.
- Vendors that use these numbers do not market any services towards minors.
They have also been exploited by scammers. The scammer (variously) leaves a voicemail or sends an email stating to their mark that they have (variously) won a lottery, needs to settle a debt, has a family member in distress, inherited something, etc. and needs to call the following number. (Similar to the classic 419 Scam.) That number tends to be one of these numbers, so that the mark ends up being placed on hold, or routed to a fax machine, or sent to an automated system that has them pressing buttons. The premium number in question tends to be one located in a country where the laws concerning premium-rate numbers are looser. The scammer then collects the per-minute fee racked up by their mark.
Today, these numbers have largely (though not completely) fallen out of use, thanks to the restrictions placed on them, toll-free and local phone numbers that provide services (such as weather reports) for free, and mobile apps.
Premium-rate SMS texting services, which usually use a 5 or 6 digit number (instead of a normal phone number), are this trope WITH TEXTS! , although these are also dying due to afforementioned apps (except for donating to charities and politicians in the United States). During their heyday, they were mostly known - nay, infamous - for the "clubs" (most infamously Jamba!/Jamster) which lured one in with ringtones, wallpapers and games to one's cell phone... but it was a subscription service with recurring payments. These services were heavily marketed to children and teens.
Phone-in Game Shows are a subtrope of this and Home Participation Sweepstakes, and in many countries the dominant if not the only exception to the antepenultimate (and, sometimes, the penultimate) paragraph.
Examples in Media:
- Calvin and Hobbes: Calvin is introduced to this concept (and a few more) about ten years early:Calvin: Why would it be worth four dollars a minute to talk on the telephone to goofy ladies who wear their underwear on TV commercials?Calvin's mom: When were you watching that?!Calvin: Um... It was on... uh... during my morning cartoons.
- 976-EVIL is about a 976 line marketed as a fun but creepy novelty hotline, but actually a direct line to hell itself. The film spawned a Direct to Video sequel, 976-EVIL 2: The Astral Factor, in which the protagonist of the first film battles a serial killer who is gaining demonic powers from said phone line.
- In Boomerang (1992), an early throwaway joke involves a 976 sex line allegedly staffed by pre-op transwomen.
- The Saturday Night Live sketch "Larry the Lobster" was one of the earliest and most memorable uses of this trope. In it, Eddie Murphy put to vote whether Larry the Lobster would live or be eaten, and gave two phone numbers to vote.
Paris: Because we know what kind of guy is calling a sex line at three in the morning!
- Another sketch involving Paris Hilton was the Nerd Phone Sex Line, offering nerdy guys the chance to talk to women pretending to be characters from their favorite books, movies, and TV shows, or their own Dungeons & Dragons characters.
- As mentioned earlier, every phone-in game show.
- Comedy Central once ran a Punch Line where, for $1.50 a minute, callers could tell jokes, or listen to other callers tell jokes. They even had judges awarding $100 prizes daily for the funniest jokes left on the line!
- Sir Mix-A-Lot references these in "Baby Got Back," telling the woman he's hitting on to "dial 1-900-Mix-A-Lot and kick them nasty thoughts". Fun fact: Verizon Wireless later repurposed it as a lawyer's cell phone number. Hilarity Ensues as he is the recipient of raunchy sexts, and gets offers for backstage passes and solicitations from luxury car dealerships.
- The afformentioned Jamba!/Jamster had its mascot Crazy Frog and his later replacement Schnuffel. Both are animated characters who perform music.
- On The Simpsons, Lisa dials one of these numbers to talk to a Teen Idol by the name of Corey. She racks up huge bills, and Marge has her stop calling the number. (And, believe it or not, the number Lisa was calling existed in Real Life.)
- In another episode, Bart becomes famous for his Catchphrase ("I didn't do it!") A phone line is set up so girls can listen to him say it. Or, rather, they can listen to Barney Gumble say it. Wrongly. ("I didn't do anything!")
- In yet another episode, Homer tries to call the "Coach's Hotline" only to see himself ripped off and then resort to Lisa, who guesses who's gonna win the football game.
- In yet another episode, the texting version of this trope showed up. An American Idol expy in which Lisa was one of the contestants charged 15 dollars per each message sent in to vote.
- On Rugrats, Chaz is calling one of these numbers to get the answers to the Crossword Puzzle in the local paper. It's implied that he does this regularly.
- In another episode, Didi wants answers from Dr. Lipschitz concerning Tommy's habit of taking his clothes off. She calls the Lipschitz Baby Talk Hotline, and is placed on hold and sent through an automated system for hours, only to receive an automated answer that's exactly what's written in one of his books, and told how much she'll be billed for the time spent on the line.
- Rick and Morty: Although well past the era of 900 numbers, Taddy Mason LLC has all the signs of being one of these: just $1.99 a minute for lonely people to talk to Taddy Mason. Needless to say, this caused Jerry to rack up a $700 phone bill.
- The New York Times reported in a 2014 article that some 1-900 phone operators were now getting more insidious, breaking into corporate Internet-connected phone systems and making calls themselves, netting hundreds of thousands of dollars which sometimes funded terrorism.
- There is one man who was so sick of cold calls he actually opened up one of these lines.
- According to CNBC, phone sex lines still existed as of 2016.