Backstory: In area codes, 212 is the only-est number

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Billy Zhou, a real estate agent from Queens, N.Y., would pay $1,000 for the right cellphone number. Like most things worth overpaying for, the number has to be big, shiny, and ostentatious. In other words, it has to begin with 212, the area code for that sliver of land just across the East River – Manhattan.

"It's just something rare that no one else is going to get," says Mr. Zhou. "People are always surprised that you have a 212 number."

The market dictates that when there's demand, someone will soon supply. Enter Sal Pugliese, a second-year MBA student at the State University of New York, Albany.

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Mr. Pugliese has devised a way to procure, by the dozen, cellphone numbers with the coveted prefix. He sells them on eBay and Craigslist to the tune of $250 each, earning about $1,000 monthly. His clients come from far and wide, including dejected New Yorkers stuck with the less recognizable 718, 347, or 646 area codes, and people from upstate and New Jersey. He even has customers in Florida and Georgia.

"It's crazy how these people eat this stuff up," he says. "Everybody thinks it's so cool."

The geographic diversity of Pugliese's clientele only seems to validate what New Yorkers have always said: Civilization has a center, and they live in it. But instead of bodily moving to the concrete jungle – an old-fashioned notion in a cyberenabled world – this new generation of aspiring New Yorkers simply obtains the city's area code. With three simple digits, they tap into the glamour of "Sex and the City," Wall Street, Broadway, and P Diddy. They've made it.

"If you had to assign a number to the center of the universe in the American mind, that number might as well be 212," says Robert Thompson, a professor of media at Syracuse University in New York. "It's probably one of the most intensely imagined square miles in the nation, and to a degree, in the world."

And the desire to be associated with this imagined nexus has spawned a niche market in cellphone real estate. AccessDirect, a provider of VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) systems, charges 10 percent more for its 212 numbers, promising a "virtual office in New York." Ads by people like Pugliese who've figured out how to land the numbers, meanwhile, appear daily in classified sites across the Internet.

The area code is a rare gem, indeed. Seventy-three percent of all 212 numbers are in use, compared with 55 percent for 310, the area code for Beverly Hills, another prestigious prefix. And the end is in sight: The 212 reservoir is forecast to reach exhaustion by 2009, according to a report by the North American Numbering Plan Administration.

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If your area code is 212, says Frantz Fils, an event and party promoter, "people – whether they realize it or not – just assume that you're better off." A resident of Brooklyn who tried – and failed – to find an affordable 212 number, he explains: "The boss is always in Manhattan. It's the city of bosses."

And identifying yourself with bossdom, Mr. Fils reasons, brings a litany of benefits. Merely existing (or seeming to) in New York City means you're paying one of the highest rents in the world. This signifies that you're earning good money, which, in turn, implies that you're good at what you do. It also means that people want to be around you, if only to mooch off your good fortune. For a promoter, like Fils, this is important. If you hand out an event flyer with a 718 contact, he says, no one will come. But if it's 212, people will make a point to attend.

Fils knows that the real hipsters – the very artists and writers responsible for New York's high market values – most often hail from 718, the outer boroughs. But as a businessman dealing in Brand New York, he knows that it's the myth of Manhattan that sells – and that means 212. "I don't believe in it," he says, but "I buy into it every day."

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How one acquires 212 numbers for resale is a more old-fashioned story about serendipity, ingenuity, and business instincts. Pugliese discovered the gourmet cellphone market by accident after putting a 212 number he'd been assigned – but found disagreeable – up for sale on eBay. When someone offered him $75, he knew he was onto something. But he didn't know how to get more 212 numbers. So he did the sensible thing: He dreamed up a few sequences he knew would be attractive – ending in 7000, or 4444, for example – and dialed them hoping to persuade whoever answered to sell.

To his surprise, a recording answered. He'd stumbled onto T-Mobile's cellphone limbo, the place temporary numbers go after being used, but before being recycled. All he had to do was transfer them to his name, a trick he discovered after many hours of conversation with customer service reps. Pugliese talked to the Monitor on the condition that the exact details of his technique not be reported.

"I'm not a bad kid," he says. "But I'm making a little bit of a killing right now."

Legally he's no "bad kid," say analysts and Federal Communications Commission officials. No rules exist addressing the sale of phone numbers between individuals, says a spokesman for the FCC, which regulates telephone carriers. But, adds Doug Williams, an analyst at JupiterResearch in New York, a phone number "is not a possession of a consumer. It's a possession of a carrier." And if history is any indication, it's the carriers that might object. In perhaps the most famous (aborted) phone number sale ever, a 212 version of the number in the 1982 hit song "867-5309/Jenny" showed up for sale on eBay in 2004. Bids reportedly reached $80,000 before Verizon, saying the number didn't belong to the seller, shut the auction down.

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Vu Nguyen owns a cellphone shop in the Los Angeles area. He also sells 212 numbers from T-Mobile on eBay, although his procurement strategy, which he describes with words like "luck" and "gambling," seems less refined than Pugliese's.

The most he's ever earned for a 212 number is $500, but he once saw one going for $9,000. "There's lots of crazy things out there," he says. For arcane reasons, even within the 212-verse, some numbers earn more than others.

It begins simply enough, says Mr. Nguyen: The numbers that are easiest to remember – the 3000s and 2500s – fetch the highest prices. Numbers that spell people's names also bring in a pretty penny. Then there's the tricky terrain of cultural biases. The average American prefers a high quantity of 7s – the most commonly rolled number on a pair of dice and the day God rested.

In East Asian cultures numerology is perhaps taken much more seriously, says Nguyen. Eight is highly sought because it's considered a lucky number and sounds, in Chinese, like the word for "prosperity." A number ending in 8888 could earn up to $5,000, Nguyen estimates. But 4 sounds like the word for death, and is so reviled that the fourth floor is often absent from hospitals and hotels across East Asia.

Zhou, who speaks Mandarin, agrees. "You could give me [a 212 number with] seven fours ... and I wouldn't take it," he says.

So what would be worth $1,000?

"A number so special," he says, "you're going to want to port it around for the rest of your life ... maybe 212-888-8888."

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