Where Cellphone Numbers Go to Die

Cellphone companies might tell you they don’t recycle old phone numbers. But that’s not exactly true.

Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty

Several months ago, I was told the number associated with my first cellphone was erased from existence. My virgin number and I had been through a lot: broken relationships, several jobs, even some unmemorable sexting. A series of impersonal digits, it was still a part of my past, something I hoped to hang on to forever, like a lucky T-shirt, or my hair.

At the time I was carting around two iPhones. One phone, with the original number, was on a cellular plan with contractual obligations I’d never bothered to read. The second was work-related, with an international calling plan and all the apps and tricks associated with working outside the office. Not only was I scrambling each time my pockets buzzed, but it also came across as obnoxious. I’m not a mogul of anything, or an international spy. The majority of my communication comes from my wife and mom.

I had to downsize, but it was complicated. I’d spoken to a representative of my first phone, who explained the intricate steps involved in combining two lines. I then spoke with my employer help desk, which put me in touch with a woman who referenced some links and algorithms to walk me through the issue. Each time I tried to address it, I was met with massive bureaucracy and wasted time such that it seemed easier to carry two phones.

But the universe had different plans. In the course of a week, I left one phone in a taxi, never to be found again, and the second in the back pocket of my jeans, which died in the washing machine. Replacing them both would cost upwards of $300. I took the advice of Phil, a mastermind phone representative, who talked me through a sophisticated caper that would see two numbers associated with one device. My work phone number would become my official contact and my sentimental, old number would be placed on hold. Anyone trying the old number would be auto-forwarded to my new number.

“So I could still use my first number later if I decided to change back?” I asked.

“Absolutely, sir. We’ll just put a forward on it. Gimme a second here”—at which point Phil insinuated he was performing the necessary logistics through mainframes and satellites from his couch—“and there we are. I’ve put a forward on your account and you’re good to go.”

It was months before I discovered that Phil was one of two things: an incapable representative who did not fully grasp the forwarding component of his company’s service, or a pathological liar of boundless proportions. The company apologized for the misunderstanding, but my phone number was gone and there was nothing anyone could do to retrieve it. I tried a half-dozen other representatives, none who could remedy the blunder, all who cited different reasons for the occurrence.

“Is it possible someone else is using my original number?” I asked. “Couldn’t that compromise my identity?”

“Absolutely not, sir. It’s been retired. We don’t recycle personal numbers.”

I should have know this was a lie when the new number I was given had a questionable history as well. Several times a week I received voicemails from University Neighborhood High School, alerting me that my son or daughter had failed to show up for school again. It wasn’t enough that I was issued a recycled phone number. I was also the front for a juvenile delinquent roaming the streets of New York City and using me as a parental alibi. Why couldn’t I be the faux parent of an honors student, the school calling to alert me of the latest societal hiccup my genius child had resolved?

“This is the University Neighborhood High school,” the voice mail would say. “Just calling to say, once again, you are doing a heck of a job with this kid. We need more parents like you.”

A month ago I began to hear whispers that perhaps my original number had not been retired after all. It was dead to me perhaps, but it still had a life of its own. Friends trying to contact me reported corresponding with an impostor named Krystal. A business partner mentioned a failed phone call, also referencing the mysterious Krystal. It was then I did something I should have done months ago: I text messaged this Krystal, demanding to know what kind of sick hijinks she was up to with my beloved digits.

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It turned out that Krystal, who hails from upstate New York, was as much a victim as I was. She lost her original number as well. With her new number (my precious old one), she had been subjected to several sickening inquiries—those being my friends—and some late night text messages from nostalgic acquaintances. If there was any sexting, she was too polite to mention it. She did have to battle through a series of text messages from my wife, who accidentally contacted my old number with some baby clothes suggestions, which Krystal passed along.

Krystal knew more about me than I would prefer a stranger know. She knew, for instance, that we were having a baby. I had recently attended a wedding because a text message had referenced some questionable behavior. She knew a coworker would be late returning from lunch. She had even received a call from a business partner regarding a missed appointment. She had not taken advantage of any of these miscommunications, she explained, although we both agreed that having access to my contacts was a threat to my identity.

“I have a sense of humor,” Krystal said. “But I’m not a mean person.”

Like most people, my life is attached to my cellphone. I’m grateful for the technology that allows me to carry a miniature computer in my pocket. But I’m susceptible to that same technology that compromises my communication. All of these phone numbers come with history, a veil of someone else’s life and dealings attached to the ten digits forever. I’m hit with guilt when the University Neighborhood High School calls to tell me my reprehensible “child” is out there, running rampant, doing who knows what while duping the educational system. I’m fortunate that Krystal is a noble person, but I worry that the next stranger who inherits that number won’t be so civil.

Mostly, I miss that prehistoric phone number, the one issued to the flip-phone I vowed I would only use for emergencies, and which somehow transmogrified into an iPhone and merged with my wardrobe. I want that number back in my pocket, safe, where it won’t cause any trouble.