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Get a local phone number with Google Voice

Here’s a great tip for all the journalists out there clinging to their hometown cell phone numbers but living in a faraway area code: Use Google Voice as a cell phone number for local sources to call. It’s sort of like a forwarding e-mail address or a redirected domain, only it allows you to a) not share your private phone number with strangers, and b) take advantage of free features your phone provider doesn’t offer, like free text messaging and voicemail transcription.

Step 1: Get a Google account.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you already have one. If you don’t, you’re missing out on tons of great services, so sign up already.

Step 2: Pick a new, local number.

Since the point is to get a local number in your new city, type in your area code, zip code or city name and scan through a catalog of numbers in that area code. You can even search for words (based on the number each letter represents on the keypad) or sequences of numbers to make the number more memorable. Chances are there is some form of some word you want, but it make take several tries to find something that works and that is available. The more specific you are, the more likely your attempts to come up with an awesome number will be unavailable. On the other hand, if you’re just looking for a number to mask your personal cell number, you could choose one in any area code in order to get that awesome sequence. The great thing is, it’s flexible, and you can test several configurations before committing. IF, on the other hand you don’t want a new number and only want the cool features, you can do this later on by porting your cell phone number into the system.

Step 3: Forward calls to your real number(s).

You can forward calls to pretty much any number (other than existing Google Voice numbers). I chose to send it to my cell phone. It will prompt you for the main number you want to connect it to, and then you’ll go through confirmation steps that are pretty easy to follow. Once you have it set up, you can even send your calls to multiple phones to be answered on the first picked up, so if you have your own office or desk phone, that may be an option for you. This is great if you’re a reporter who always gives out your cell phone number to avoid missed callbacks: Send your new number to both cell and desk phones, and then pick it up on your work phone if you’re in the office so you’re not wasting any of your cell phone minutes.

Step 4: Customize your experience, preferences, etc.

You’ll want to set up your voicemail box at a minimum, and one cool feature is the ability to customize different messages for different people. You might want a personal greeting for friends but something more formal for the mayor, for instance. But also look around at the preferences (e.g. do you want it to answer immediately, answer and give you a menu, send everyone to voicemail, etc.) and set those that work for you. For example, I set it up so my voicemails and SMS texts are e-mailed to me. This way it doesn’t use my phone’s texting plan and it transcribes my voicemail, so I don’t have to listen to them immediately — or sometimes at all. (Note: Sometimes the transcription is humorously bad. That’s half the fun. Usually, I can at least tell who it is, though, and always I can go in and listen if needed.) Another handy feature that seems custom made for reporters is the ability to record your voice calls and store them on Google Voice. It will prompt you to do this, if you set it up, and will tell the caller — so make sure you know your state laws when it comes to recording conversations. This is especially handy on cell phone calls where recording isn’t very feasible.

Step 5: Start disseminating your new number.

You could send it out as a mass note to your local sources. Or just start giving it out instead of your old number. You don’t need to explain Google Voice to anyone. They won’t even know they’re not calling a “real” number. Just start telling them, if you want to reach me on my cell phone call xxx-xxx-xxxx. Eventually, they’ll start calling and texting that. In addition to all the cool points above, the nice thing here is people no longer have to call an out-of-area-code number. It’s local, which is easier to remember, and local for those landline-lovers (and businesses with landlines) means the call is free. It also means, you don’t have to give out your real number to every man on the street.

Bonus: Get the Google Voice app for your phone.

Or at the least check out the nice mobile site. The app allows you to make calls that show up from your Google Voice number, without having to dial into Google Voice. With the Android app, it actually asks at the start of every call whether I want to call from Google Voice or not. That way folks recognize your number, and they also don’t see your personal number. It also stores all those other messages in one place (though it’s somewhat overkill to have e-mails of your sms/voicemails if you have the app, but your mileage may vary).

Bonus #2: Make free calls!

Connect Google Voice to your Google Talk account (the chat that pops up on iGoogle and Gmail) and make calls for free. It’s like Skype, only better because it calls the person from your new cell phone number, so people won’t dodge your “anonymous” calls. You can even plug in the number on the computer and have it call your phone and then connect you. (That’s a handy feature if, for example, your cell phone company doesn’t charge you for incoming calls.)

Bonus #3: Moving? Get a new local number.

The other cool thing about this service is if you move to another news organization in another community in the future, you can change your Google Voice number. It’s $10, but honestly, $10 seems a reasonable price to pay to keep your contacts, settings, etc. all tied together but front a new number. It’s certainly easier than changing your real cell phone number every time you move. It also has some overlap time so you can transition into the new number without disconnecting those who missed the new number message.

Note: This is an update to and expansion on a post previously published at MerandaWrites.com in 2010.

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