Cheap long distance started to change that. There's less reason to check a number carefully if the financial penalty for screwing up is reduced, but there's more reason to dial a number incorrectly if you can't look it up in a phone book. (This applied to the era before the WWW, of course.) So we all started getting wrong numbers from people who lived the next town or two over.
The proliferation of non-phone devices changed things a bit more. If you've ever been forced to take your phone off the hook in the middle of the night, just because some aspiring fax spammer fat-fingered your home number into their overnight transmission list and set the retries to the maximum, you know what I mean.
Then "phone plan options" appeared, and something new started to happen: the reverse wrong number. You'd call someone, realise you had the wrong number, apologise, and hang up. Unluckily for you, you'd just accidentally called someone with both an unlisted number and caller ID. They'd call you back, and the conversation would go something like this, at least if you deal with such situations the way I do.
Them: Why did you just call me?
Me: Um, other way around — you just called me.
(This is the part where they get whiny/panicky/irate.)
Them: Nooooooo, you just called me! And I have an unlisted number!
Me: Hm. I did just try to call a friend of mine, but I dialled a wrong number.
Them: But my number's unlisted!
Me: Doesn't mean people can't dial it by accident. After all, my number's unlisted and you called me.
Them: But that's because I have call display.
Me: Yeah, but now you've invaded my privacy by recording my unlisted number and calling it. I could report you for harrassment. What did you say your name was again?
Just about when the paranoid people finally figured out what their optional services really did, all those new (no longer that new) area codes were added. Toronto finally had a succinct way to identify conservative suburbia — the "905" — and having a 416 number became a status symbol in some circles. Plus, calling a wrong number became a lot more easy and common than it used to be.
I got some experience with just how easy and common it was when some guy named Kevin got a cell number the same as mine, but with a different area code. It was right at the beginning of a long weekend, and I got lots of late-night calls from drunken young men, giggly (and also drunken) young women, and irate older people who wanted to know who I was and why I was answering Kevin's phone. After two nights of interrupted sleep, I got a call from the Humber OPP asking for Kevin. The police were the only ones I called back — to confirm that they had the wrong number. I never found out who Kevin was, but I hope he learned how to party without getting on the radar of the provincial police.
That brings this narrative up to the present day. Phone services on the interweb have proliferated. There are plenty of phone number searches, and now there are VoIP services like Skype. In the same way that you don't need a TV set anymore to watch TV, thanks to computers, you no longer need an actual phone number to make a phone call. As my mother now puts it when I call her long-distance over Skype, "the call display said 'unknown caller' so I figured it must be you."
And it's that flexibility, that global reach available to anyone who has access to an internet café and a cheap long-distance card, that is making wrong numbers get really, really weird.
In the past year I had a call from people who said they were in Constantinople and who claimed to be friends with my nephew. I don't have a nephew and they did have a wrong number, but it was a long, convoluted discussion before I felt I could hang up politely. (I don't like to just hang up. People hit redial, and now they're annoyed at you for being rude.)
I've also had a call from someone who thought I was their long-lost half-sister (this one wasn't so much a wrong number as a wrong relation), and a lot of calls from people who get very confused when someone with a Canuck accent answers the phone. This last group is almost always very polite and apologetic — I hope they reach their intended party.
One last note: drunk dialing has been around as long as there have been phones. My maternal grandparents were painfully aware of it — their phone number was one digit off from the local taxi company, so they got plenty of calls at closing time with people saying things like, "Yeah, pick me up at the Rose & Crown[click]". It's just that now there are more phones around (and, arguably, more recreational chemicals), so drunk dialing is reaching new heights/depths just like all the other wrong number dialing we do.
My new Nokia N900 still doesn't have a SIM card in it (my old phone still works, so I'm being lazy about dealing with that), so it can't receive or send phone calls except via Wifi and some VoIP service like Skype.
Last Saturday night found me watching one of those lovely, chick-flick Jane Eyre film adaptations. It was right about the part where the hero and heroine finally have their one kiss of the entire movie when all of a sudden my phone started ringing and buzzing.... as if I was getting a call or something.
So I picked it up and checked (I figured I'd accidentally set an alarm for the wrong time)... and it was a Skype call. From France. Since I don't know anyone in France who would call me at midnight Toronto time, I just hung up. But this caller was redialling so fast it was as if I had never touched the End Call button. Finally I just turned off the Wifi.
I got two chat messages from my French caller. One was in the French version of texting shorthand, and I have no idea what it said because I don't know the standard abbreviations for French text messages. The other was in regular, if ungrammatical, French, and I could read that. It said "repend moi" (answer me).
Pro tip: if you're going to drunk dial, be polite. You never know when you're going to call a semi-bilingual former teacher in Canada by mistake.
If you have any favourite wrong number stories, please add them to the comments!