- By Joab Jackson -
Sure, everyone here keeps up with the latest digital technology, but
how many forget that social and technical fun can be had with those older
technologies that now are all but transparent to us? So apropos of nothing other
than a slow news week, I present my favorite 10 phone pranks, as documented on the Web:1.Toilet-Paper Crisis: In the early '70s, "phone phreaker" John Draper, aka Cap'n Crunch, was a California kid who built "blue-box"
tone generators and was still learning his way around Ma Bell's
internal telephone routing systems. Rummaging around the trunk line that led into the White House, one day Crunch and an anonymous friend found the line to the
president's office. They also overheard the secret CIA code word used
to summon then-President Richard Nixon: Olympus. A few minutes later, Draper's friend called the presidential number. Someone sounding remarkably like Nixon
answered. "What's going on?" the presumed president barked. The friend
replied, "We have a crisis here in Los Angeles!" Tricky Dicky responded, "What's the nature of the crisis ?" "We're out of toilet paper, sir!"
"I was scared shitless afterwards, and even though we 'stacked' tandems
about eight or nine deep, we knew we had only seconds to hang up, or they would
nail us," Draper, who now co-runs the computer security company ShopIP e-mails.
"I kept it VERY quiet until long after Nixon was dead, just for my own
survival sake . . . Only after long consultation with an attorney, I released the story on my Web site."
Bar Tapes: This is where Bart Simpson got his crank-call ideas. In the late '70s, a crotchety geezer named Red owned the Jersey City, N.J.,
dive called the Tube Bar. Two wiseacres, John Elmo and Jim Davidson,
would call up Red and ask for an "Al Kaholic" or a "Ben Dover," only to have Red burst out in profanities once he realized he was again being made to look foolish.
The duo caught it all on tape, long before the likes of the Jerky Boys
made a living pulling such stunts. The transcripts alone are worth a
Line: Here's a good idea from another California prankster, one who goes by
the handle, Wrybread: Simultaneously call two numbers at random, then conference them together without letting either party know what's going on.
As heard here, confusion and hilarity can ensue.
4. Psycho Chick or
Opportunistic Dude? When Dallas resident Mark McElwain broke up with his girlfriend, so McElwain says, she left more than 50 agonizing, increasingly desperate messages in his voice mail. And so he posted them on the Web, to instant acclaim. As morally reprehensible as that may sound, what's even worse is that the whole thing might have been a hoax to draw viewers for banner ads, as
NewsTrolls suggested. The site noted that McElwain registered the domain name for
his site before some of the messages were supposedly even created, and the whole site is tied into a pretty sophisticated (and annoying) ad-serving mechanism.
McElwain maintains he's on the up-and-up."I wish we were making
money with the site," Elwain says to me by phone, adding that the woman was indeed a jilted ex. He explains that he registered the domain name before he was sure he wanted to post the messages, he wanted to "give the relationship one last effort." Obviously
it didn't work out. The site's ads pay for the immense bandwidth required -- so far the site has gotten 10 million hits, McElwain says. "We didn't know it would take off like this," he adds.
"When you say 'we' who do you mean?" I ask.
"I don't know why I say 'we,'" he says, laughing. "I mean 'I.'"
5. Tom Mabe's Revenge on the
Telemarketers: Anyone can plot a clever crank call in advance, but it takes an agile mind to cleverly respond to an incoming call. Louisville, Ky., comedian Tom Mabe has that mind. He started taping calls from telemarketers, who annoyed him endlessly, and whom he made a point of annoying back. He now has a cottage business
selling the resulting tapes (though free samples can be heard at his
site). They're a hoot. When someone calls to sell cemetery plots, Mabe pretends to be on the verge of suicide (but asks if the company has "a payment plan"). When a law-enforcement agency calls for a donation, he complains how his daughter was
thrown in jail, drawling, "A girl can't get prettied up and try to make
a couple extra dollars on the corner?" A carpet cleaning service rings and he asks if they can get blood out of the carpet ("I got blood all over the place, man"). In another call, he
incessantly recites degrading telemarketer jokes until the phone rep shoots back, "How many telemarketers does it take to kick your ass?"
6. The Pope Line:
Another early-'70s blue-box escapade, in which future Apple Computer co-founder Stephen Wozniak used one of these units to call the Vatican.
As "Henry Kissinger," he asked to speak to Pope Paul VI, but chickened
out and hung up before His Holiness was awakened from his nap.
7. Radio-wave Terrorism: A crank flier put up by a conceptual artist -- or one from the Federal Communications Commission? An unusual flier was
found posted in San Francisco last September. This "Notice of
Interruption of Cellular Service" warned against using cell phones and shortwave radio "[i]n order to assure public safety from suspected acts of radio wave terrorism." Was this flier some mock warning, one that protested the Anti-Terrorism
and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which expanded the powers of
the FBI? Or was someone with FCC letterhead just sick of overhearing cell-phone conversations everywhere? And how can one terrorize
the populace with radio waves, anyway?
8. and 9. Cell-Phone Eavesdropping: Cell-phone calls are
notoriously easy to intercept on scanners and old televisions,
at least analog ones anyway. So it's not surprising that broadcasts of
cell-phone frequencies started appearing
on SHOUTcast not too
long ago. SHOUTcast has seemingly cracked down on these clandestine
broadcasts. However, in 1999, San Diego techno musician SpacewÃ¼rm published an entire book made up entirely of
intercepted cell-phone calls. I Listen: A Document of Digital Voyeurism offers a disturbing glimpse into a society that, judging by its cell-phone
conversations, is overly occupied by sex, greed, heartbreak, and discontent.
10. Prince Albert in a Can: The definitve guide
to the dozens of other cranks calls caught on the Web.
Research assistance: El Destino
NewsForge editors read and respond to comments posted on our discussion page.