You Can Call Long Distance for
Less Than You Think
"You see, a few years ago the phone company made one big mistake," Gilbertson
explains two days later in his apartment. "They were careless enough to let some
publish the actual frequencies used to create all their
multi-frequency tones. Just a theoretical article some Bell Telephone Laboratories
engineer was doing about switching theory, and he listed the tones in passing. At -----
[a well-known technical school] I had been fooling around with phones for several years
before I came across a copy of the journal in the engineering library. I ran back to
the lab and it took maybe twelve hours from the time I saw that article to put together
the first working blue box. It was bigger and clumsier than this
little baby, but it worked."
It's all there on public record in that technical journal written mainly by Bell Lab
people for other telephone engineers. Or at least it was public. "Just try and get a
copy of that issue at some engineering-school library now. Bell has had them all
red-tagged and withdrawn from circulation," Gilbertson tells me.
"But it's too late. It's all public now. And once they became public the technology
needed to create your own beeper device is within the range of any twelve-year-old kid,
any twelve-year-old blind kid as a matter of fact. And he can do it in less
than the twelve hours it took us. Blind kids do it all the time. They can't build anything as
precise and compact as my beeper box, but theirs can do anything
mine can do."
"Okay. About twenty years ago A.T.&T. made a multi-billion-dollar decision to
operate its entire long-distance switching system on twelve electronically generated
combinations of six master tones. Those are the tones you sometimes hear in the
background after you've dialed a long-distance number. They decided to use some very
simple tones the tone for each number is just two fixed single-frequency tones
played simultaneously to create a certain beat frequency. Like 1300 cycles per second
and 900 cycles per second played together give you the tone for digit 5. Now, what some
of these phone phreaks have done is get themselves access to an electric organ. Any
cheap family home-entertainment organ. Since the frequencies are public knowledge now
one blind phone phreak has even had them recorded in one of those talking books for
the blind they just have to find the musical notes on the organ which correspond to
the phone tones. Then they tape them. For instance, to get Ma Bell's tone for the
number 1, you press down organ keys F5 and A5 [900 and 700 cycles
per second] at the
same time. To produce the tone for 2 it's F5 and C6 [1100
and 700 c.p.s]. The phone
phreaks circulate the whole list of notes so there's no trial and error anymore."
He shows me a list of the rest of the phone numbers and the two electric organ keys
that produce them.
"Actually, you have to record these notes at 3¾ inches-per-second tape speed and
double it to 7½ inches-per-second when you play them back, to get the proper tones,"
"So once you have all the tones recorded, how do you plug them into the phone
"Well, they take their organ and their cassette recorder, and start banging out
entire phone numbers in tones on the organ, including country codes, routing
instructions, 'KP' and 'Start' tones. Or, if they don't have an organ, someone in the
phone-phreak network sends them a cassette with all the tones recorded, with a voice
saying 'Number one,' then you have the tone, 'Number two,' then the tone and so on. So
with two cassette recorders they can put together a series of phone numbers by
switching back and forth from number to number. Any idiot in the country with a cheap
cassette recorder can make all the free calls he wants."
"You mean you just hold the cassette recorder up the mouthpiece and switch in a
series of beeps you've recorded? The phone thinks that anything that makes these tones
must be its own equipment?"
"Right. As long as you get the frequency within thirty cycles per second of the
phone company's tones, the phone equipment thinks it hears its own voice talking to it.
The original granddaddy phone phreak was this blind kid with perfect pitch,
who used to whistle into the phone. An operator could tell the difference
between his whistle and the phone company's electronic tone generator, but the phone
company's switching circuit can't tell them apart. The bigger the phone company gets
and the further away from human operators it gets, the more vulnerable it becomes to
all sorts of phone phreaking."
A Guide for the Perplexed
"But wait a minute," I stop Gilbertson. "If everything you do sounds like
phone-company equipment, why doesn't the phone company charge you for the call the way
it charges its own equipment?"
"Okay. That's where the 2600-cycle tone comes in. I better start from the
The beginning he describes for me is a vision of the phone system of the continent
as thousands of webs, of long-line trunks radiating from each of the hundreds of toll
switching offices to the other toll switching offices. Each toll switching office is a
hive compacted of thousands of long-distance tandems constantly whistling and beeping
to tandems in far-off toll switching offices.
The tandem is the key to the whole
system. Each tandem is a line with some relays with the capability of signaling any
other tandem in any other toll switching office on the continent, either directly
one-to-one or by programming a roundabout route through several other tandems if all
the direct routes are busy. For instance, if you want to call from New York to Los
Angeles and traffic is heavy on all direct trunks between the two cities, your tandem
in New York is programmed to try the next best route, which may send you down to a
tandem in New Orleans, then up to San Francisco, or down to a New Orleans tandem, back
to an Atlanta tandem, over to an Albuquerque tandem and finally up to Los Angeles.
When a tandem is not being used, when it's sitting there waiting for someone to make
a long-distance call, it whistles. One side of the tandem, the side "facing" your home
phone, whistles at 2600 cycles per second toward all the home phones serviced by the
exchange, telling them it is at their service, should they be interested in making a
long-distance call. The other side of the tandem is whistling 2600 c.p.s. into one or
more long-distance trunk lines, telling the rest of the phone system that it is neither
sending nor receiving a call through that trunk at the moment, that it has no use for
that trunk at the moment.
"When you dial a long-distance number the first thing that happens is that you are
hooked into a tandem. A register comes up to the side of the tandem facing away from
you and presents that side with the number you dialed. This sending side of the tandem
stops whistling 2600 into its trunk line. When a tandem stops the 2600 tone it has been
sending through a trunk, the trunk is said to be "seized," and is now ready to carry
the number you have dialed converted into multi-frequency beep tones to a tandem
in the area code and central office you want.
Now when a blue-box operator wants to make a call from New
Orleans to New York he starts by dialing the 800 number of a company which might happen to
have its headquarters in Los Angeles. The sending side of the New Orleans tandem stops sending
2600 out over the trunk to the central office in Los Angeles, thereby seizing the
trunk. Your New Orleans tandem begins sending beep tones to a tandem it has discovered
idly whistling 2600 cycles in Los Angeles. The receiving end of that L.A. tandem is
seized, stops whistling 2600, listens to the beep tones which tell it which L.A. phone
to ring, and starts ringing the 800 number. Meanwhile a mark made in the New Orleans
office accounting tape notes that a call from your New Orleans phone to the 800 number
in L.A. has been initiated and gives the call a code number. Everything is routine so
But then the phone phreak presses his blue box to the
mouthpiece and pushes the 2600-cycle button, sending 2600 out from the New Orleans tandem
to the L.A. tandem. The L.A. tandem notices 2600 cycles are coming over the line again and
assumes that New Orleans has hung up because
the trunk is whistling as if idle. The L.A. tandem immediately ceases ringing the L.A. 800
number. But as soon as the phreak takes his finger off the 2600 button, the L.A. tandem
assumes the trunk is once again being used because the 2600 is gone, so it listens for a new
series of digit tones to find out where it must send the call.
Thus the blue-box operator in New Orleans now is in touch with
a tandem in L.A.
which is waiting like an obedient genie to be told what to do next. The blue-box owner
then beeps out the ten digits of the New York number which tell the L.A. tandem to
relay a call to New York City. Which it promptly does. As soon as your party picks up
the phone in New York, the side of the New Orleans tandem facing you stops sending 2600
cycles to you and stars carrying his voice to you by way of the L.A. tandem. A notation
is made on the accounting tape that the connection has been made on the 800 call which
had been initiated and noted earlier. When you stop talking to New York a notation is
made that the 800 call has ended.
At three the next morning, when the phone company's accounting computer starts
reading back over the master accounting tape for the past day, it records that a call
of a certain length of time was made from your New Orleans home to an L.A. 800 number
and, of course, the accounting computer has been trained to ignore those toll-free 800
calls when compiling your monthly bill.
"All they can prove is that you made an 800 toll-free call," Gilbertson the inventor
concludes. "Of course, if you're foolish enough to talk for two hours on an 800 call,
and they've installed one of their special anti-fraud computer programs to watch out
for such things, they may spot you and ask why you took two hours talking to Army
Recruiting's 800 number when you're 4-F. But if you do it from a pay phone, they may
discover something peculiar the next day if they've got
a blue-box hunting program in their computer but you'll
be a long time gone from the pay phone by then. Using a pay phone is almost guaranteed safe."
"What about the recent series of blue-box arrests all across the
country New York, Cleveland, and so on?" I asked. "How were they caught so easily?"
"From what I
can tell, they made one big mistake: they were seizing trunks using an area code plus
555-1212 instead of an 800 number. Using 555 is easy to detect because when you send
multi-frequency beep tones of 555 you get a charge for it on your tape and the
accounting computer knows there's something wrong when it tries to bill you for a
two-hour call to Akron, Ohio, information, and it drops a trouble card which goes right
into the hands of the security agent if they're looking
for blue-box users.
"Whoever sold those guys their blue boxes didn't tell them how to use them properly,
which is fairly irresponsible. And they were fairly stupid to use them at home all the
"But what those arrests really mean is that an awful lot of blue boxes are flooding
into the country and that people are finding them so easy to make that they know how to
make them before they know how to use them. Ma Bell is in trouble."
And if a blue-box operator or a cassette-recorder phone
phreak sticks to pay phones
and 800 numbers, the phone company can't stop them?
"Not unless they change their entire nationwide long-lines technology, which will
take them a few billion dollars and twenty years. Right now they can't do a thing.
Captain Crunch Demonstrates His Famous Unit
There is an underground telephone network in this country. Gilbertson discovered it
the very day news of his activities hit the papers. That evening his phone began
ringing. Phone phreaks from Seattle, from Florida, from New York, from San Jose, and
from Los Angeles began calling him and telling him about the phone-phreak network. He'd
get a call from a phone phreak who'd say nothing but, "Hang up and call this number."
When he dialed the number he'd find himself tied into a conference of a dozen phone
phreaks arranged through a quirky switching station in British Columbia. They
identified themselves as phone phreaks, they demonstrated their homemade blue boxes
which they called "M-F-ers" (for "multi-frequency," among other things) for him, they
talked shop about phone-phreak devices. They let him in on their secrets on the theory
that if the phone company was after him he must be trustworthy. And, Gilbertson
recalls, they stunned him with their technical sophistication.
I ask him how to get in touch with the phone-phreak network. He digs around through
a file of old schematics and comes up with about a dozen numbers in three widely
separated area codes.
"Those are the centers," he tells me. Alongside some of the numbers he writes in
first names or nicknames: names like Captain Crunch,
Dr. No, Frank Carson (also a code
word for a free call), Marty Freeman (code word for M-F device), Peter Perpendicular
Pimple, Alefnull, and The Cheshire Cat. He makes checks alongside the names of those
among these top twelve who are blind. There are five checks.
I ask him who this Captain Crunch person is.
"Oh. The Captain. He's probably the most legendary phone phreak. He calls himself
Captain Crunch after the notorious Cap'n Crunch 2600 whistle." (Several years ago,
Gilbertson explains, the makers of Cap'n Crunch breakfast cereal
offered a toy-whistle prize in every box as a treat for the Cap'n Crunch set. Somehow a
phone phreak discovered that the toy whistle just happened to produce a perfect
2600-cycle tone. When the man who calls himself Captain Crunch was transferred overseas
to England with his Air Force unit, he would receive scores of calls from his friends
and "mute" them make them free of charge to them by blowing his Cap'n Crunch
whistle into his end.)
"Captain Crunch is one of the older phone phreaks," Gilbertson tells me. "He's an
engineer who once got in a little trouble for fooling around with the phone, but he
can't stop. Well, this guy drives across country in a Volkswagen van with an entire
switchboard and a computerized super-sophisticated M-F-er in the back. He'll pull up to
a phone booth on a lonely highway somewhere, snake a cable out of his bus, hook it onto
the phone and sit for hours, days sometimes, sending calls zipping back and forth
across the country, all over the world...."
Back at my motel, I dialed the number he gave me for "Captain Crunch" and asked for
G---- T-----, his real name, or at least the name he uses when he's not dashing into a
phone booth beeping out M-F tones faster than a speeding bullet, and zipping phantomlike
through the phone company's long-distance lines.
When G---- T----- answered the phone
and I told him I was preparing a story for Esquire about phone phreaks, he became very
"I don't do that. I don't do that anymore at all. And if I do it, I do it for one
reason and one reason only. I'm learning about a system. The phone company is a System.
A computer is a System. Do you understand? If I do what I do, it is only to explore a
System. Computers. Systems. That's my bag. The phone company is nothing but a
A tone of tightly restrained excitement enters the Captain's voice when he starts
talking about Systems. He begins to pronounce each syllable with the hushed
deliberation of an obscene caller.
"Ma Bell is a system I want to explore. It's a beautiful system, you know, but Ma
Bell screwed up. It's terrible because Ma Bell is such a beautiful system, but she
screwed up. I learned how she screwed up from a couple of blind kids who wanted me to
build a device. A certain device. They said it could make free calls. I wasn't
interested in free calls. But when these blind kids told me I could make calls into a
computer, my eyes lit up. I wanted to learn about computers. I wanted to learn about Ma
Bell's computers. So I built the little device. Only I built it wrong and Ma Bell found
out. Ma Bell can detect things like that. Ma Bell knows. So I'm strictly out of it now.
I don't do it. Except for learning purposes." He pauses. "So you want to write an
article. Are you paying for this call? Hang up and call this number."
He gives me a
number in an area code a thousand miles north of his own. I dial the number.
again. This is Captain Crunch. You are speaking to me on a toll-free loop-around in
Portland, Oregon. Do you know what a toll-free loop
around is? I'll tell you."
He explains to me that almost every exchange in the country has open test numbers
which allow other exchanges to test their connections with it. Most of these numbers
occur in consecutive pairs, such as 302 956-0041 and 956-0042. Well, certain phone
phreaks discovered that if two people from anywhere in the country dial those two
consecutive numbers they can talk together just as if one had called the other's
number, with no charge to either of them, of course.
"Your voice is looping around in a 4A switching machine up there in Canada,
zipping back down to me," the Captain tells me. "My voice is looping around up there
and back down to you. And it can't ever cost anyone money. The phone phreaks and I have
compiled a list of many many of these numbers. You would be surprised if you saw the
list. I could show it to you. But I won't. I'm out of that now. I'm not out to screw Ma
Bell. I know better. If I do anything it's for the pure knowledge of the System. You
can learn to do fantastic things. Have you ever heard eight tandems stacked up? Do you
know the sound of tandems stacking and unstacking? Give me your phone number. Okay.
Hang up now and wait a minute."
Slightly less than a minute later the phone rang and the Captain was on the line,
his voice sounding far more excited, almost aroused.
"I wanted to show you what it's
like to stack up tandems. To stack up tandems." (Whenever the Captain says "stack up"
it sounds as if he is licking his lips.)
"How do you like the connection you're on now?" the Captain asks me. "It's a raw
tandem. A raw tandem. Ain't nothin' up to it but a tandem. Now I'm going to show you
what it's like to stack up. Blow off. Land in a far away place. To stack that tandem
up, whip back and forth across the country a few times, then shoot on up to Moscow.
"Listen," Captain Crunch continues. "Listen. I've got a line tie on my switchboard
here, and I'm gonna let you hear me stack and unstack tandems. Listen to this. It's
gonna blow your mind."
First I hear a super rapid-fire pulsing of the flutelike phone tones, then a pause,
then another popping burst of tones, then another, then another. Each burst is followed
by a beep-kachink sound.
"We have now stacked up four tandems," said Captain Crunch, sounding somewhat
remote. "That's four tandems stacked up. Do you know what that means? That means I'm
whipping back and forth, back and forth twice, across the country, before coming to
you. I've been known to stack up twenty tandems at a time. Now, just like I said, I'm
going to shoot up to Moscow."
There is a new, longer series of beeper pulses over the line, a brief silence, then
"Hello," answers a far-off voice.
"Hello. Is this the American Embassy Moscow?"
"Yes, sir. Who is this calling?" says the voice.
"Yes. This is test board here in New York. We're calling to check out the
circuits, see what kind of lines you've got. Everything okay there in
"Well, yes, how are things there?"
"Oh. Well, everything's okay, I guess."
"Okay. Thank you." They hang up, leaving a confused series of beep-kachink
sounds hanging in mid-ether in the wake of the call before dissolving away.
The Captain is pleased. "You believe me now, don't you? Do you know what I'd like to
do? I'd like to call up your editor at Esquire and show him just what it sounds
like to stack and unstack tandems. I'll give him a show that will blow his mind. What's
I ask the Captain what kind of device he was using to accomplish all his feats. The
Captain is pleased at the question.
"You could tell it was special, couldn't you? Ten pulses per second. That's faster
than the phone company's equipment. Believe me, this unit is the most famous unit in
the country. There is no other unit like it. Believe me."
"Yes, I've heard about it.
Some other phone phreaks have told me about it."
"They have been referring to my, ahem,
unit? What is it they said? Just out of curiosity, did they tell you it was a highly
sophisticated computer-operated unit, with acoustical coupling for receiving outputs
and a switch-board with multiple-line-tie capability? Did they tell you that the
frequency tolerance is guaranteed to be not more than .05 percent? The amplitude
tolerance less than .01 decibel? Those pulses you heard were perfect. They just come
faster than the phone company. Those were high-precision op-amps. Op-amps are
instrumentation amplifiers designed for ultra-stable amplification, super-low
distortion and accurate frequency response. Did they tell you it can operate in
temperatures from -55ºC to +125ºC?"
I admit that they did not tell me all that.
"I built it myself," the Captain goes on. "If you were to go out and buy the
components from an industrial wholesaler it would cost you at least $1,500. I once
worked for a semiconductor company and all this didn't cost me a cent. Do you know what
I mean? Did they tell you about how I put a call completely around the world? I'll tell
you how I did it. I M-F-ed Tokyo inward, who connected me to India, India connected me
to Greece, Greece connected me to Pretoria, South Africa, South Africa connected me to
South America, I went from South America to London, I had a London operator connect me
to a New York operator, I had New York connect me to a California operator who rang the
phone next to me. Needless to say I had to shout to hear myself. But the echo was far
out. Fantastic. Delayed. It was delayed twenty seconds, but I could hear myself talk to
"You mean you were speaking into the mouthpiece of one phone sending your voice
around the world into your ear through a phone on the other side of your head?" I asked
the Captain. I had a vision of something vaguely autoerotic going on, in a complex
"That's right," said the Captain. "I've also sent my voice around the world one way,
going east on one phone, and going west on the other, going through cable one way,
satellite the other, coming back together at the same time, ringing the two phones
simultaneously and picking them up and whipping my voice both ways around the world
back to me. Wow. That was a mind blower."
"You mean you sit there with both phones on
your ear and talk to yourself around the world," I said incredulously.
"Yeah. Um hum. That's what I do. I connect the phones together and sit there and talk."
"What do you say? What do you say to yourself when you're connected?"
"Oh, you know. Hello test one two three," he says in a low-pitched voice.
"Hello test one two three," he replied to himself in a high-pitched voice.
"Hello test one two three," he repeats again, low-pitched.
"Hello test one two three," he replies, high-pitched.
"I sometimes do this: Hello hello hello hello, hello, hello," he
trails off and breaks into laughter.
Why Captain Crunch Hardly Ever
Taps Phones Anymore
Using internal phone-company codes, phone phreaks have learned a simple method for
tapping phones. Phone-company operators have in front of them a board that holds
verification jacks. It allows them to plug into conversations in case of emergency, to
listen in to a line to determine if the line is busy or the circuits are busy. Phone
phreaks have learned to beep out the codes which lead them to a verification operator,
tell the verification operator they are switchmen from some other area code testing out
verification trunks. Once the operator hooks them into the verification trunk, they
disappear into the board for all practical purposes, slip unnoticed into any one of the
10,000 to 100,000 numbers in that central office without the verification operator
knowing what they're doing, and of course without the two parties to the connection
knowing there is a phantom listener present on their line.
Toward the end of my
hour-long first conversation with him, I asked the Captain if he ever tapped phones.
"Oh no. I don't do that. I don't think it's right," he told me firmly. "I have the
power to do it but I don't... Well one time, just one time, I have to admit that I did.
There was this girl, Linda, and I wanted to find out... you know. I tried to call her
up for a date. I had a date with her the last weekend and I thought she liked me. I
called her up, man, and her line was busy, and I kept calling and it was still busy.
Well, I had just learned about this system of jumping into lines and I said to myself,
'Hmmm. Why not just see if it works. It'll surprise her if all of a sudden I should pop
up on her line. It'll impress her, if anything.' So I went ahead and did it. I M-F-ed
into the line. My M-F-er is powerful enough when patched directly into the mouthpiece
to trigger a verification trunk without using an operator the way the other phone
phreaks have to.
"I slipped into the line and there she was talking to another boyfriend. Making
sweet talk to him. I didn't make a sound because I was so disgusted. So I waited there
for her to hang up, listening to her making sweet talk to the other guy. You know. So
as soon as she hung up I instantly M-F-ed her up and all I said was, 'Linda, we're
through.' And I hung up. And it blew her head off. She couldn't figure out what the
"But that was the only time. I did it thinking I would surprise her, impress her.
Those were all my intentions were, and well, it really kind of hurt me pretty badly,
and... and ever since then I don't go into verification trunks."
Moments later my first conversation with the Captain comes to a close.
"Listen," he says, his spirits somewhat cheered, "listen. What you are going to hear
when I hang up is the sound of tandems unstacking. Layer after layer of tandems
unstacking until there's nothing left of the stack, until it melts away into nothing.
Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep," he concludes, his voice descending to a whisper with each
He hangs up. The phone suddenly goes into four spasms: kachink cheep. Kachink cheep
kachink cheep kachink cheep, and the complex connection has wiped itself out like the
Cheshire cat's smile.
The MF Boogie Blues
The next number I choose from the select list of phone-phreak illuminati, prepared for
me by the blue-box inventor is a Memphis number. It is the number of
the first and still perhaps the most accomplished blind phone phreak.
Three years ago Engressia was a nine-day wonder in newspapers and magazines all over
America because he had been discovered whistling free long-distance connections for
fellow students at the University of South Florida. Engressia was born with perfect
pitch; he could whistle phone tones better than the phone-company's equipment.
Engressia might have gone on whistling in the dark for a few friends for the rest of
his life if the phone company hadn't decided to expose him. He was warned, disciplined
by the college, and the whole case became public. In the months following media reports
of his talent, Engressia began receiving strange calls. There were calls from a group
of kids in Los Angeles who could do some very strange things with the quirky General
Telephone and Electronics circuitry in L.A. suburbs. There were calls from a group of
mostly blind kids in ----, California, who had been doing some interesting experiments
with Cap'n Crunch whistles and test loops. There was a group in Seattle, a group in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few from New York, a few scattered across the country. Some
of them had already equipped themselves with cassette and
electronic M-F devices.
For some of these groups, it was the first time they knew of the others.
The exposure of Engressia was the catalyst that linked the separate phone-phreak
centers together. They all called Engressia. They talked to him about what he was doing
and what they were doing. And then he told them the scattered regional centers and
lonely independent phone phreakers about each other, gave them each other's numbers
to call, and within a year the scattered phone-phreak centers had grown into a
Joe Engressia is only twenty-two years old now, but along the phone-phreak network
he is "the old man," accorded by phone phreaks something of the reverence the phone
company bestows on Alexander Graham Bell. He seldom needs to make calls anymore. The
phone phreaks all call him and let him know what new tricks, new codes, new techniques
they have learned. Every night he sits like a sightless spider in his little apartment
receiving messages from every tendril of his web. It is almost a point of pride with
Joe that they call him.
But when I reached him in his Memphis apartment that night, Joe Engressia was
lonely, jumpy and upset.
"God, I'm glad somebody called. I don't know why tonight of all nights I don't get
any calls. This guy around here got drunk again tonight and propositioned me again. I
keep telling him we'll never see eye to eye on this subject, if you know what I mean. I
try to make light of it, you know, but he doesn't get it. I can hear him out there
getting drunker and I don't know what he'll do next. It's just that I'm really all
alone here. I just moved to Memphis, it's the first time I'm living out on my own, and I'd
hate for it to all collapse now. But I won't go to bed with him. I'm just not very
interested in sex and even if I can't see him I know he's ugly.
"Did you hear that? That's him banging a bottle against the wall outside. He's nice.
Well forget about it. You're doing a story on phone phreaks? Listen to this. It's the
M F Boogie blues."
Sure enough, a jumpy version of Muskrat Ramble boogies its way over the line, each
note one of those long-distance phone tones. The music stops. A huge roaring voice
blasts the phone off my ear: "AND THE QUESTION IS..." roars the voice, "CAN A BLIND
PERSON HOOK UP AN AMPLIFIER ON HIS OWN?"
The roar ceases. A high-pitched operator-type voice replaces it. "This is Southern
Braille Tel. & Tel. Have tone, will phone."
This is succeeded by a quick series of M-F tones, a swift "kachink" and a deep
reassuring voice: "If you need home care, call the visiting-nurses association. First
National time in Honolulu is 4:32 p.m."
Joe back in his Joe voice again: "Are we seeing eye to eye? 'Sí, sí,' said
Mexican. Ahem. Yes. Would you like to know the weather in Tokyo?"
This swift manic
sequence of phone-phreak vaudeville stunts and blind-boy jokes manages to keep Joe's
mind off his tormentor only as long as it lasts.
"The reason I'm in Memphis, the reason I have to depend on that homosexual guy, is
that this is the first time I've been able to live on my own and make phone trips on my
own. I've been banned from all central offices around home in Florida, they knew me too
well, and at the University some of my fellow scholars were always harassing me because
I was on the dorm pay phone all the time and making fun of me because of my fat ass,
which of course I do have, it's my physical fatness program, but I don't like to hear
it every day, and if I can't phone trip and I can't phone phreak, I can't imagine what
I'd do, I've been devoting three quarters of my life to it.
"I moved to Memphis because I wanted to be on my own as well as because it has a
Number 5 crossbar switching system and some interesting little independent
phone-company districts nearby and so far they don't seem to know who I am so I can go
on phone tripping, and for me phone tripping is just as important as phone phreaking."
Phone tripping, Joe explains, begins with calling up a central-office switch room.
He tells the switchman in a polite earnest voice that he's a blind college student
interested in telephones, and could he perhaps have a guided tour of the switching
station? Each step of the tour Joe likes to touch and feel relays, caress switching
circuits, switchboards, crossbar arrangements.
So when Joe Engressia phone phreaks he feels his way through the circuitry of the
country garden of forking paths, he feels
switches shift, relays shunt, crossbars swivel, tandems engage and disengage even as he
hears with perfect pitch his M-F pulses make the entire Bell system dance to his
Just one month ago Joe took all his savings out of his bank and left home, over
the emotional protests of his mother. "I ran away from home almost," he likes to say.
Joe found a small apartment house on Union Avenue and began making phone trips. He'd
take a bus a hundred miles south into Mississippi to see some old-fashioned Bell
equipment still in use in several states, which had been puzzling. He'd take a bus
three hundred miles to Charlotte, North Carolina, to look at some brand-new
experimental equipment. He hired a taxi to drive him twelve miles to a suburb to tour
the office of a small phone company with some interesting idiosyncrasies in its routing
system. He was having the time of his life, he said, the most freedom and pleasure he
In that month he had done very little long-distance phone phreaking from his own
phone. He had begun to apply for a job with the phone company, he told me, and he
wanted to stay away from anything illegal.
"Any kind of job will do, anything as menial as the most lowly operator.
That's probably all they'd give me because I'm blind. Even though I probably knew
more than most switchmen. But that's okay. I want to work for Ma Bell. I don't hate Ma
Bell the way Gilbertson and some phone phreaks do. I don't want to screw Ma Bell. With
me it's the pleasure of pure knowledge. There's something beautiful about the system
when you know it intimately the way I do. But I don't know how much they know about me
here. I have a very intuitive feel for the condition of the line I'm on, and I think
they're monitoring me off and on lately, but I haven't been doing much illegal. I have
to make a few calls to switchmen once in a while which aren't strictly legal, and once
I took an acid trip and was having these auditory hallucinations as if I were trapped
and these planes were dive-bombing me, and all of sudden I had to phone phreak out of
there. For some reason I had to call Kansas City, but that's all."
A Warning Is Delivered
At this point one o'clock in my time zone a loud knock on my motel-room door
interrupts our conversation. Outside the door I find a uniformed security guard who
informs me that there has been an "emergency phone call" for me while I have been on
the line and that the front desk has sent him up to let me know.
Two seconds after I say good-bye to Joe and hang up, the phone rings.
"Who were you
talking to?" the agitated voice demands. The voice belongs to Captain Crunch. "I called
because I decided to warn you of something. I decided to warn you to be careful. I
don't want this information you get to get to the radical underground. I don't want it
to get into the wrong hands. What would you say if I told you it's possible for three
phone phreaks to saturate the phone system of the nation. Saturate it. Busy it out. All
of it. I know how to do this. I'm not gonna tell. A friend of mine has already
saturated the trunks between Seattle and New York. He did it with a computerized M-F-er
hitched into a special Manitoba exchange. But there are other, easier ways to do it."
Just three people? I ask. How is that possible?
"Have you ever heard of the long-lines guard frequency? Do you know about stacking
tandems with 17 and 2600? Well, I'd advise you to find out about it. I'm not gonna tell
you. But whatever you do, don't let this get into the hands of the radical
(Later Gilbertson the inventor confessed that while he had always been skeptical
about the Captain's claim of the sabotage potential of trunk-tying phone phreaks, he
had recently heard certain demonstrations which convinced him the Captain was not
speaking idly. "I think it might take more than three people, depending on how many
machines like Captain Crunch's were available. But even though the Captain sounds a
little weird, he generally turns out to know what he's talking about.")
"You know," Captain Crunch continues in his admonitory tone, "you know the younger
phone phreaks call Moscow all the time. Suppose everybody were to call Moscow. I'm no
right-winger. But I value my life. I don't want the Commies coming over and dropping a
bomb on my head. That's why I say you've got to be careful about who gets this
The Captain suddenly shifts into a diatribe against those phone phreaks who don't
like the phone company.
"They don't understand, but Ma Bell knows everything they do. Ma Bell knows. Listen,
is this line hot? I just heard someone tap in. I'm not paranoid, but I can detect
things like that. Well, even if it is, they know that I know that they know that I have
a bulk eraser. I'm very clean." The Captain pauses, evidently torn between wanting to
prove to the phone-company monitors that he does nothing illegal, and the desire to
impress Ma Bell with his prowess. "Ma Bell knows the things I can do," he continues.
"Ma Bell Knows how good I am. And I am quite good. I
can detect reversals, tandem switching, everything that goes on on a line. I have
relative pitch now. Do you know what that means? My ears are a $20,000 piece of
equipment. With my ears I can detect things they can't hear with their equipment. I've
had employment problems. I've lost jobs. But I want to show Ma Bell how good I am. I
don't want to screw her, I want to work for her. I want to do good for her. I want to
help her get rid of her flaws and become perfect. That's my number-one goal in life
now." The Captain concludes his warnings and tells me he has to be going. "I've got a
little action lined up for tonight," he explains and hangs up.
Before I hang up for the night, I call Joe Engressia back. He reports that his
tormentor has finally gone to sleep "He's not blind drunk, that's the way I get,
ahem, yes; but you might say he's in a drunken stupor." I make a date to visit Joe in
Memphis in two days.
A Phone Phreak Cell Takes Care of Business
The next morning I attend a gathering of four phone phreaks in ----- (a California
suburb). The gathering takes place in a comfortable split-level home in an
upper-middle-class subdivision. Heaped on the kitchen table are the portable cassette
recorders, M-F cassettes, phone patches, and line ties of the four phone phreaks
present. On the kitchen counter next to the telephone is a shoe-box-size blue box with
thirteen large toggle switches for the tones. The parents of the host phone phreak,
Ralph, who is blind, stay in the living room with their sighted children. They are not
sure exactly what Ralph and his friends do with the phone or if it's strictly legal,
but he is blind and they are pleased he has a hobby which keeps him busy.
The group has been working at reestablishing the historic "2111" conference,
reopening some toll-free loops, and trying to discover the dimensions of what seem to
be new initiatives against phone phreaks by phone-company security agents.
It is not long before I get a chance to see, to hear, Randy at work. Randy is known
among the phone phreaks as perhaps the finest con man in the game. Randy is blind. He
is pale, soft and pear-shaped, he wears baggy pants and a wrinkly nylon white sport
shirt, pushes his head forward from hunched shoulders somewhat like a turtle inching
out of its shell. His eyes wander, crossing and recrossing, and his forehead is
somewhat pimply. He is only sixteen years old.
But when Randy starts speaking into a telephone mouthpiece his voice becomes so
stunningly authoritative it is necessary to look again to convince yourself it comes
from a chubby adolescent Randy. Imagine the voice of a crack oil-rig foreman, a tough,
sharp, weather-beaten Marlboro man of forty. Imagine the voice of a brilliant
performance-fund gunslinger explaining how he beats the Dow Jones by thirty percent.
Then imagine a voice that could make those two sound
like Stepin Fetchit. That is
sixteen-year-old Randy's voice.
He is speaking to a switchman in
Detroit. The phone company in Detroit had closed up two toll-free loop pairs for no
apparent reason, although heavy use by phone phreaks all over the country may have been
detected. Randy is telling the switchman how to open up the loop and make it free
"How are you, buddy. Yeah. I'm on the board in here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we've
been trying to run some tests on your loop-arounds and we find'em busied out on both
sides.... Yeah, we've been getting a 'BY' on them, what d'ya say, can you drop cards on
'em? Do you have 08 on your number group? Oh that's okay, we've had this trouble
before, we may have to go after the circuit. Here lemme give 'em to you: your frame is
05, vertical group 03, horizontal 5, vertical file 3. Yeah, we'll hang on here....
Okay, found it? Good. Right, yeah, we'd like to clear that busy out. Right. All you
have to do is look for your key on the mounting plate, it's in your miscellaneous trunk
frame. Okay? Right. Now pull your key from NOR over the LCT. Yeah. I don't know why
that happened, but we've been having trouble with that one. Okay. Thanks a lot fella.
Be seein' ya."
Randy hangs up, reports that the switchman was a little inexperienced with the
loop-around circuits on the miscellaneous trunk frame, but that the loop has been
returned to its free-call status.
Delighted, phone phreak Ed returns the pair of numbers to the active-status column
in his directory. Ed is a superb and painstaking researcher. With almost Talmudic
thoroughness he will trace tendrils of hints through soft-wired mazes of intervening
phone-company circuitry back through complex linkages of switching relays to find the
location and identity of just one toll-free loop. He spends hours and hours, every day,
doing this sort of thing. He has somehow compiled a directory of eight hundred
"Band-six in-WATS numbers" located in over forty states. Band-six in-WATS numbers are
the big 800 numbers the ones that can be dialed into free from anywhere in the
Ed the researcher, a nineteen-year-old engineering student, is also a superb
technician. He put together his own working blue box from scratch at
age seventeen. (He is sighted.) This evening after distributing the latest issue of his
in-WATS directory (which has been typed into Braille for the blind phone phreaks), he
announces he has made a major new breakthrough:
"I finally tested it and it works, perfectly. I've got this switching matrix which
converts any touch-tone phone into an M-F-er."
The tones you hear in touch-tone phones are not the M-F tones that operate the
long-distance switching system. Phone phreaks believe A.T.&T. had deliberately equipped
touch tones with a different set of frequencies to avoid putting the six master M-F
tones in the hands of every touch-tone owner. Ed's complex switching matrix puts the
six master tones, in effect puts
a blue box, in the hands of every touch-tone owner.
Ed shows me pages of schematics, specifications and parts lists. "It's not easy to
build, but everything here is in the Heathkit catalog."
Ed asks Ralph what progress he has made in his attempts to reestablish a long-term
open conference line for phone phreaks. The last big conference the historic "2111"
conference had been arranged through an unused Telex test-board trunk somewhere in
the innards of a 4A switching machine in Vancouver, Canada. For months phone phreaks
could M-F their way into Vancouver, beep out 604 (the Vancouver area code) and then
beep out 2111 (the internal phone-company code for Telex testing), and find themselves
at any time, day or night, on an open wire talking with an array of phone phreaks from
coast to coast, operators from Bermuda, Tokyo and London who are phone-phreak
sympathizers, and miscellaneous guests and technical experts. The conference was a
massive exchange of information. Phone phreaks picked each other's brains clean, then
developed new ways to pick the phone company's brains clean. Ralph gave M F Boogies
concerts with his home-entertainment-type electric organ, Captain Crunch demonstrated
his round-the-world prowess with his notorious computerized unit and dropped leering
hints of the "action" he was getting with his girl friends. (The Captain lives out or
pretends to live out several kinds of fantasies to the gossipy delight of the blind
phone phreaks who urge him on to further triumphs on behalf of all of them.) The
somewhat rowdy Northwest phone-phreak crowd let their bitter internal feud spill over
into the peaceable conference line, escalating shortly into guerrilla warfare; Carl the
East Coast international tone relations expert demonstrated newly opened direct M-F
routes to central offices on the island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, introduced a
new phone-phreak friend of his in Pretoria, and explained the technical operation of
the new Oakland-to-Vietnam linkages. (Many phone phreaks pick up spending money by
M-F-ing calls from relatives to Vietnam G.I.'s, charging $5 for a whole hour of
Day and night the conference line was never dead. Blind
phone phreaks all over the country, lonely and isolated in homes filled with active
sighted brothers and sisters, or trapped with slow and unimaginative blind kids in
straitjacket schools for the blind, knew that no matter how late it got they could dial
up the conference and find instant electronic communion with two or three other blind
kids awake over on the other side of America. Talking together on a phone hookup, the
blind phone phreaks say, is not much different from being there together. Physically,
there was nothing more than a two-inch-square wafer of titanium inside a vast machine
on Vancouver Island. For the blind kids there meant an exhilarating feeling of being
in touch, through a kind of skill and magic which was peculiarly their own.
Last April 1, however, the long Vancouver Conference was shut off. The phone phreaks
knew it was coming. Vancouver was in the process of converting from a step-by-step
system to a 4A machine and the 2111 Telex circuit was to be wiped out in the process.
The phone phreaks learned the actual day on which the conference would be erased about
a week ahead of time over the phone company's internal-news-and-shop-talk recording.
For the next frantic seven days every phone phreak in America was on and off the
2111 conference twenty-four hours a day. Phone phreaks who were just learning the game
or didn't have M-F capability were boosted up to the conference by more experienced
phreaks so they could get a glimpse of what it was like before it disappeared. Top
phone phreaks searched distant area codes for new conference possibilities without
success. Finally in the early morning of April 1, the end came.
"I could feel it coming a couple hours before midnight," Ralph remembers. "You could
feel something going on in the lines. Some static began showing up, then some whistling
wheezing sound. Then there were breaks. Some people got cut off and called right back
in, but after a while some people were finding they were cut off and couldn't get back
in at all. It was terrible. I lost it about one a.m., but managed to slip in again and
stay on until the thing died... I think it was about four in the morning. There were
four of us still hanging on when the conference disappeared into nowhere for good. We
all tried to M-F up to it again of course, but we got silent termination. There was
The Legendary Mark Bernay Turns Out To Be
"The Midnight Skulker"
Mark Bernay. I had come across that name before.
It was on Gilbertson's select list
of phone phreaks. The California phone phreaks had spoken of a mysterious Mark Bernay
as perhaps the first and oldest phone phreak on the West Coast. And in fact almost
every phone phreak in the West can trace his origins either directly to Mark Bernay or
to a disciple of Mark Bernay.
It seems that five years ago this Mark Bernay (a
pseudonym he chose for himself) began traveling up and down the West Coast pasting tiny
stickers in phone books all along his way. The stickers read something like "Want to
hear an interesting tape recording? Call these numbers." The numbers that followed were
toll-free loop-around pairs. When one of the curious called one of the numbers he would
hear a tape recording pre-hooked into the loop by Bernay which explained the use of
loop-around pairs, gave the numbers of several more, and ended by telling the caller,
"At six o'clock tonight this recording will stop and you and your friends can try it
out. Have fun."
"I was disappointed by the response at first," Bernay told me, when I finally
reached him at one of his many numbers and he had dispensed with the usual "I never do
anything illegal" formalities with which experienced phone phreaks open most conversations.
"I went all over the coast with these stickers not only on pay phones, but I'd throw
them in front of high schools in the middle of the night, I'd leave them unobtrusively
in candy stores, scatter them on main streets of small towns. At first hardly anyone
bothered to try it out. I would listen in for hours and hours after six o'clock and no
one came on. I couldn't figure out why people wouldn't be interested. Finally these two
girls in Oregon tried it out and told all their friends and suddenly it began to
Before his Johnny Appleseed trip Bernay had already gathered a sizable group of early
pre-blue-box phone phreaks together on loop-arounds in Los Angeles. Bernay does not
claim credit for the original discovery of the loop-around numbers. He attributes the
discovery to an eighteen-year-old reform-school kid in Long Beach whose name he forgets
and who, he says, "just disappeared one day." When Bernay himself discovered
loop-arounds independently, from clues in his readings in old issues of the Automatic
Electric Technical Journal, he found dozens of the reform-school kid's friends already
using them. However, it was one of Bernay's disciples in Seattle that introduced phone
phreaking to blind kids. The Seattle kid who learned about loops through Bernay's
recording told a blind friend, the blind kid taught the secret to his friends at a
winter camp for blind kids in Los Angeles. When the camp session was over these kids
took the secret back to towns all over the West. This is how the original blind kids
became phone phreaks. For them, for most phone phreaks in general, it was the discovery
of the possibilities of loop-arounds which led them on to far more serious and
sophisticated phone-phreak methods, and which gave them a medium for sharing their
A year later a blind kid who moved back east brought the technique to a blind kids'
summer camp in Vermont, which spread it along the East Coast. All from a Mark Bernay
Bernay, who is nearly thirty years old now, got his start when he was fifteen and
his family moved into an L.A. suburb serviced by General Telephone and Electronics
equipment. He became fascinated with the differences between Bell and G.T.&E.
equipment. He learned he could make interesting things happen by carefully timed clicks
with the disengage button. He learned to interpret subtle differences in the array of
clicks, whirrs and kachinks he could hear on his lines. He learned he could shift
himself around the switching relays of the L.A. area code in a not-too-predictable
fashion by interspersing his own hook-switch clicks with the clicks within the line.
(Independent phone companies there are nineteen hundred of them still left, most of
them tiny island principalities in Ma Bell's vast empire have always been favorites
with phone phreaks, first as learning tools, then as Archimedes platforms from which to
manipulate the huge Bell system. A phone phreak in Bell territory will often M-F
himself into an independent's switching system, with switching idiosyncrasies which can
give him marvelous leverage over the Bell System.
"I have a real affection for
Automatic Electric equipment," Bernay told me. "There are a lot of things you can play
with. Things break down in interesting ways."
Shortly after Bernay graduated from college (with a double major in chemistry and
philosophy), he graduated from phreaking around with G.T.&E. to the Bell System itself,
and made his legendary sticker-pasting journey north along the coast, settling finally
in Northwest Pacific Bell territory. He discovered that if Bell does not break down as
interestingly as G.T.&E., it nevertheless offers a lot of "things to play with."
Bernay learned to play with blue boxes. He established his own personal switchboard
and phone-phreak research laboratory complex. He continued his phone-phreak evangelism
with ongoing sticker campaigns. He set up two recording numbers, one with instructions
for beginning phone phreaks, the other with latest news and technical developments
(along with some advanced instruction) gathered from sources all over the country.
These days, Bernay told me, he had gone beyond phone-phreaking itself. "Lately I've
been enjoying playing with computers more than playing with phones. My personal thing
in computers is just like with phones, I guess the kick is in finding out how to
beat the system, how to get at things I'm not supposed to know about, how to do things
with the system that I'm not supposed to be able to do."
As a matter of fact, Bernay told me, he had just been fired from his
computer-programming job for doing things he was not supposed to be able to do. He had
been working with a huge time-sharing computer owned by a large corporation but shared
by many others. Access to the computer was limited to those programmers and
corporations that had been assigned certain passwords. And each password restricted its
user to access to only the one section of the computer cordoned off from its own
information storager. The password system prevented companies and individuals from
stealing each other's information.
"I figured out how to write a program that would let
me read everyone else's password," Bernay reports. "I began playing around with
passwords. I began letting the people who used the computer know, in subtle ways, that
I knew their passwords. I began dropping notes to the computer supervisors with hints
that I knew what I know. I signed them 'The Midnight Skulker.' I kept getting cleverer
and cleverer with my messages and devising ways of showing them what I could do. I'm
sure they couldn't imagine I could do the things I was showing them. But they never
responded to me. Every once in a while they'd change the passwords, but I found out how
to discover what the new ones were, and I let them know. But they never responded
directly to The Midnight Skulker. I even finally designed a program which they could
use to prevent my program from finding out what it did. In effect I told them how to
wipe me out, The Midnight Skulker. It was a very clever program. I started leaving
clues about myself. I wanted them to try and use it and then try to come up with
something to get around that and reappear again. But they wouldn't play. I wanted to
get caught. I mean I didn't want to get caught personally, but I wanted them to notice
me and admit that they noticed me. I wanted them to attempt to respond, maybe in some
Finally the computer managers became concerned enough about the threat of
information-stealing to respond. However, instead of using The Midnight Skulker's own
elegant self-destruct program, they called in their security personnel, interrogated
everyone, found an informer to identify Bernay as The Midnight Skulker, and fired him.
"At first the security people advised the company to hire me full-time to search out
other flaws and discover other computer freaks. I might have liked that. But I probably
would have turned into a double double agent rather than the double agent they wanted.
I might have resurrected The Midnight Skulker and tried to catch myself. Who knows?
Anyway, the higher-ups turned the whole idea down."
You Can Tap the F.B.I.'s Crime Control
Computer in the Comfort of Your
Computer freaking may be the wave of the future. It suits the phone-phreak
sensibility perfectly. Gilbertson, the blue-box inventor
and a lifelong phone phreak,
has also gone on from phone-phreaking to computer-freaking. Before he got into the
blue-box business Gilbertson, who is a highly skilled programmer, devised programs for
international currency arbitrage.
But he began playing with computers in earnest when he learned he could use
his blue box in tandem with the computer terminal installed
in his apartment by the
instrumentation firm he worked for. The print-out terminal and keyboard was equipped
with acoustical coupling, so that by coupling his little ivory Princess phone to the
terminal and then coupling his blue box on that, he could M-F his way into other
computers with complete anonymity, and without charge; program and re-program them at
will; feed them false or misleading information; tap and steal from them. He explained
to me that he taps computers by busying out all the lines, then going into a
verification trunk, listening into the passwords and instructions one of the time
sharers uses, and them M-F-ing in and imitating them. He believes it would not be
impossible to creep into the F.B.I's crime control computer through a local police
computer terminal and phreak around with the F.B.I.'s memory banks. He claims he has
succeeded in re-programming a certain huge institutional computer in such a way that it
has cordoned off an entire section of its circuitry for his personal use, and at the
same time conceals the arrangement from anyone else's notice. I have been unable to
verify this claim.
Like Captain Crunch, like Alexander Graham Bell (pseudonym of a disgruntled-looking
East Coast engineer who claims to have invented the black box and
now sells black and blue boxes to gamblers and
radical heavies), like most phone phreaks, Gilbertson began
his career trying to rip off pay phones as a teen-ager. Figure them out, then rip them
off. Getting his dime back from the pay phone is the phone phreak's first thrilling
rite of passage. After learning the usual eighteen different ways of getting his dime
back, Gilbertson learned how to make master keys to coin-phone cash boxes, and get
everyone else's dimes back. He stole some phone-company equipment and put together his
own home switchboard with it. He learned to make a
simple "bread-box" device, of the
kind used by bookies in the Thirties (bookie gives a number to his betting clients; the
phone with that number is installed in some widow lady's apartment, but is rigged to
ring in the bookie's shop across town, cops trace big betting number and find nothing
but the widow).
Not long after that afternoon in 1968 when, deep in the stacks of an engineering
library, he came across a technical journal with the phone tone frequencies and rushed
off to make his first blue box, not long after that Gilbertson abandoned a very
promising career in physical chemistry and began selling blue boxes for $1,500 apiece.
"I had to leave physical chemistry. I just ran out of interesting things to learn,"
he told me one evening. We had been talking in the apartment of the man who served as
the link between Gilbertson and the syndicate in arranging the big
$300,000 blue-box deal
which fell through because of legal trouble. There has been some smoking.
"No more interesting things to learn," he continues. "Physical chemistry turns out
to be a sick subject when you take it to its highest level. I don't know. I don't think
I could explain to you how it's sick. You have to be there. But you get, I don't know,
a false feeling of omnipotence. I suppose it's like phone-phreaking that way. This huge
thing is there. This whole system. And there are holes in it and you slip into them
like Alice and you're pretending you're doing something you're actually not, or at
least it's no longer you that's doing what you thought you were doing. It's all Lewis
Carroll. Physical chemistry and phone-phreaking. That's why you have these phone-phreak
pseudonyms like The Cheshire Cat, The Red King, and The Snark. But there's something
about phone-phreaking that you don't find in physical chemistry." He looks up at me:
"Did you ever steal anything?"
Well yes, I
"Then you know! You know the rush you get. It's not just knowledge, like physical
chemistry. It's forbidden knowledge. You know. You can learn about anything under the
sun and be bored to death with it. But the idea that it's illegal. Look: you can be
small and mobile and smart and you're ripping off somebody large and powerful and very
People like Gilbertson and Alexander Graham Bell are always talking about ripping
off the phone company and screwing Ma Bell. But if they were shown a single button and
told that by pushing it they could turn the entire circuitry of A.T.&T. into molten
puddles, they probably wouldn't push it. The disgruntled-inventor phone phreak needs
the phone system the way the lapsed Catholic needs the Church, the way Satan needs a
God, the way The Midnight Skulker needed, more than anything else, response.
Later that evening Gilbertson finished telling me how delighted he was at the flood
of blue boxes spreading throughout the country, how delighted he was to know that "this
time they're really screwed." He suddenly shifted gears.
"Of course, I do have this
love/hate thing about Ma Bell. In a way I almost like the phone company. I guess I'd be
very sad if they were to go away or if their services were to disintegrate.
In a way it's just that after having been so
good they turn out to have these things wrong with them. It's those flaws that allow me
to get in and mess with them, but I don't know. There's something about it that gets to
you and makes you want to get to it, you know."
I ask him what happens when he runs out of interesting, forbidden things to learn
about the phone system.
"I don't know, maybe I'd go to work for them for a while."
In security even?
"I'd do it, sure. I just as soon play I'd just as soon work on either side."
Even figuring out how to trap phone phreaks? I said, recalling Mark Bernay's game.
"Yes, that might be interesting. Yes, I could figure out how to outwit the phone phreaks.
Of course if I got too good at it, it might become boring again. Then I'd have to hope the
phone phreaks got much better and outsmarted me for a while. That would move the
quality of the game up one level. I might even have to help them out, you know, 'Well
kids, I wouldn't want this to get around but did you ever think of ?' I could keep
it going at higher and higher levels forever."
The dealer speaks up for the first time.
He has been staring at the soft blinking patterns of lights and colors on the
translucent tiled wall facing him. (Actually there are no patterns: the color and
illumination of every tile is determined by a computerized random-number generator
designed by Gilbertson which insures that there can be no meaning to any sequence of
events in the tiles.)
"Those are nice games you're talking about," says the dealer to his friend. "But I
wouldn't mind seeing them screwed. A telephone isn't private anymore. You can't say
anything you really want to say on a telephone or you have to go through that paranoid
bull----. 'Is it cool to talk on the phone?' I mean, even if it is cool, if you have to
ask 'Is it cool,' then it isn't cool. You know.
Like those blind kids, people are going to start putting together their own
private telephone companies if they want to really talk. And you know what else. You
don't hear silences on the phone anymore. They've got this time-sharing thing on
long-distance lines where you make a pause and they snip out that piece of time and use
it to carry part of somebody else's conversation. Instead of a pause, where somebody's
maybe breathing or sighing, you get this blank hole and you only start hearing again
when someone says a word and even the beginning of the word is clipped off. Silences
don't count you're paying for them, but they take them away from you. It's not cool
to talk and you can't hear someone when they don't talk. What the hell good is the
phone? I wouldn't mind seeing them totally screwed."
The Big Memphis Bust
Joe Engressia never wanted to screw Ma Bell. His dream had always been to work for
The day I visited Joe in his small apartment on Union Avenue in Memphis, he was
upset about another setback in his application for a telephone job.
"They're stalling on it. I got a letter today telling me they'd have to postpone the
interview I requested again. My landlord read it for me. They gave me some runaround
about wanting papers on my rehabilitation status but I think there's something else
When I switched on the 40-watt bulb in Joe's room he sometimes forgets when he
has guests it looked as if there was enough telephone hardware to start a small
phone company of his own.
There is one phone on top of his desk, one phone sitting in an open drawer beneath
the desk top. Next to the desk-top phone is a cigar-box-size M-F device with big toggle
switches, and next to that is some kind of switching and coupling device with jacks and
alligator plugs hanging loose. Next to that is a Braille typewriter. On the floor next
to the desk, lying upside down like a dead tortoise, is the half-gutted body of an old
black standard phone. Across the room on a torn and dusty couch are two more phones,
one of them a touch-tone model; two tape recorders; a heap of phone patches and
cassettes, and a life-size toy telephone.
Our conversation is interrupted every ten minutes by phone phreaks from all over the
country ringing Joe on just about every piece of equipment but the toy phone and the
Braille typewriter. One fourteen-year-old blind kid from Connecticut calls up and tells
Joe he's got a girl friend. He wants to talk to Joe about girl friends. Joe says
they'll talk later in the evening when they can be alone on the line. Joe draws a deep
breath, whistles him off the air with an earsplitting 2600-cycle whistle. Joe is
pleased to get the calls but he looked worried and preoccupied that evening, his brow
constantly furrowed over his dark wandering eyes. In addition to the phone-company
stall, he has just learned that his apartment house is due to be demolished in sixty
days for urban renewal. For all its shabbiness, the Union Avenue apartment house has
been Joe's first home-of-his-own and he's worried that he may not find another before
this one is demolished.
But what really bothers Joe is that switchmen haven't been listening to him. "I've
been doing some checking on 800 numbers lately, and I've discovered that certain 800
numbers in New Hampshire couldn't be reached from Missouri and Kansas. Now it may sound
like a small thing, but I don't like to see sloppy work; it makes me feel bad about the
lines. So I've been calling up switching offices and reporting it, but they haven't
corrected it. I called them up for the third time today and instead of checking they
just got mad. Well, that gets me mad. I mean, I do try to help them. There's something
about them I can't understand you want to help them and they just try to say you're
It is Sunday evening and Joe invites me to join him for dinner at a Holiday Inn.
Frequently on Sunday evening Joe takes some of his welfare money, calls a cab, and
treats himself to a steak dinner at one of Memphis' thirteen Holiday Inns. (Memphis is
the headquarters of Holiday Inn. Holiday Inns have been a favorite for Joe ever since
he made his first solo phone trip to a Bell switching office in Jacksonville, Florida,
and stayed in the Holiday Inn there. He likes to stay at Holiday Inns, he explains,
because they represent freedom to him and because the rooms are arranged the same all
over the country so he knows that any Holiday Inn room is familiar territory to him.
Just like any telephone.)
Over steaks in the Pinnacle Restaurant of the Holiday Inn Medical Center on Madison
Avenue in Memphis, Joe tells me the highlights of his life as a phone phreak.
At age seven, Joe learned his first phone trick. A mean baby-sitter, tired of
listening to little Joe play with the phone as he always did, constantly, put a lock on
the phone dial. "I got so mad. When there's a phone sitting there and I can't use
it . . . so I started getting mad and banging the receiver up and down. I noticed I banged it
once and it dialed one. Well, then I tried banging it twice. . . ." In a few minutes Joe
learned how to dial by pressing the hook switch at the right time. "I was so excited I
remember going 'whoo whoo' and beat a box down on the floor."
At age eight Joe learned about whistling. "I was listening to some intercept
nonworking-number recording in L.A. I was calling L.A. as far back as that, but I'd
mainly dial nonworking numbers because there was no charge, and I'd listen to these
recordings all day. Well, I was whistling 'cause listening to these recordings can be
boring after a while even if they are from L.A., and all of a sudden, in the middle of
whistling, the recording clicked off. I fiddled around whistling some more, and the
same thing happened. So I called up the switch room and said, 'I'm Joe. I'm eight years
old and I want to know why when I whistle this tune the line clicks off.' He tried to
explain it to me, but it was a little too technical at the time. I went on learning.
That was a thing nobody was going to stop me from doing. The phones were my life, and I
was going to pay any price to keep on learning. I knew I could go to jail. But I had to
do what I had to do to keep on learning."
The phone is ringing when we walk back into Joe's apartment on Union Avenue. It is
Captain Crunch. The Captain has been following me around by phone, calling up
everywhere I go with additional bits of advice and explanation for me and whatever
phone phreak I happen to be visiting. This time the Captain reports he is calling from
what he describes as "my hideaway high up in the Sierra Nevada." He pulses out lusty
salvos of M-F and tells Joe he is about to "go out and get a little action tonight. Do
some phreaking of another kind, if you know what I mean." Joe chuckles.
The Captain then tells me to make sure I understand that what he told me about tying
up the nation's phone lines was true, but that he and the phone phreaks he knew never
used the technique for sabotage. They only learned the technique to help the phone
"We do a lot of troubleshooting for them. Like this New Hampshire/Missouri WATS-line
flaw I've been screaming about. We help them more than they know."
After we say
good-bye to the Captain and Joe whistles him off the line, Joe tells me about a
disturbing dream he had the night before: "I had been caught and they were taking me to
a prison. It was a long trip. They were taking me to a prison a long long way away. And
we stopped at a Holiday Inn and it was my last night ever at a Holiday Inn, and it was my
last night ever using the phone and I was
crying and crying, and the lady at the Holiday Inn said, 'Gosh, honey, you should never
be sad at a Holiday Inn. You should always be happy here. Especially since it's your
last night.' And that just made it worse and I was sobbing so much I couldn't stand
Two weeks after I left Joe Engressia's apartment, phone-company security agents and
Memphis police broke into it. Armed with a warrant, which they left pinned to a wall,
they confiscated every piece of equipment in the room, including his toy telephone. Joe
was placed under arrest and taken to the city jail where he was forced to spend the
night since he had no money and knew no one in Memphis to call.
It is not clear who told Joe what that night, but someone told him that the phone
company had an open-and-shut case against him because of revelations of illegal
activity he had made to a phone-company undercover agent.
By morning Joe had become convinced that the reporter from Esquire, with whom he had
spoken two weeks ago, was the undercover agent. He probably had ugly thoughts about
someone he couldn't see gaining his confidence, listening to him talk about his
personal obsessions and dreams, while planning all the while to lock him up.
"I really thought he was a reporter," Engressia told the Memphis Press-Scimitar. "I
told him everything...." Feeling betrayed, Joe proceeded to confess everything to the
press and police.
As it turns out, the phone company did use an undercover agent to trap Joe, although
it was not the Esquire reporter.
Ironically, security agents were alerted and began to compile a case against Joe
because of one of his acts of love for the system: Joe had called an internal service
department to report that he had located a group of defective long-distance trunks, and
to complain again about the New Hampshire/Missouri WATS problem. Joe always liked Ma
Bell's lines to be clean and responsive. A suspicious switchman reported Joe to the
security agents who discovered that Joe had never had a long-distance call charged to
Then the security agents learned that Joe was planning one of his phone trips to a
local switching office. The security people planted one of their agents in the
switching office. He posed as a student switchman and followed Joe around on a tour. He
was extremely friendly and helpful to Joe, leading him around the office by the arm.
When the tour was over he offered Joe a ride back to his apartment house. On the way he
asked Joe one tech man to another about "those blue boxes" he'd heard about. Joe
talked about them freely, talked about his blue box freely, and about all the other
things he could do with the phones.
The next day the phone-company security agents slapped a monitoring tape on Joe's
line, which eventually picked up an illegal call. Then they applied for the search
warrant and broke in.
In court Joe pleaded not guilty to possession of a blue box and theft of service.
A sympathetic judge reduced the charges to malicious mischief and found him guilty on
that count, sentenced him to two thirty-day sentences to be served concurrently and
then suspended the sentence on condition that Joe promise never to play with phones
again. Joe promised, but the phone company refused to restore his service. For two
weeks after the trial Joe could not be reached except through the pay phone at his
apartment house, and the landlord screened all calls for him.
Phone-phreak Carl managed to get through to Joe after the trial, and reported that
Joe sounded crushed by the whole affair.
"What I'm worried about," Carl told me, "is that Joe means it this time. The
promise. That he'll never phone-phreak again. That's what he told me, that he's given
up phone-phreaking for good. I mean his entire life. He says he knows they're going to
be watching him so closely for the rest of his life he'll never be able to make a move
without going straight to jail. He sounded very broken up by the whole experience of
being in jail. It was awful to hear him talk that way. I don't know. I hope maybe he
had to sound that way. Over the phone, you know."
He reports that the entire phone-phreak underground is up in arms over the phone
company's treatment of Joe. "All the while Joe had his hopes pinned on his application
for a phone-company job, they were stringing him along getting ready to bust him. That
gets me mad. Joe spent most of his time helping them out. The bastards. They think they
can use him as an example. All of sudden they're harassing us on the coast. Agents are
jumping up on our lines. They just busted ------'s mute yesterday and ripped out his
lines. But no matter what Joe does, I don't think we're going to take this lying down."
Two weeks later my phone rings and about eight phone phreaks in succession say hello
from about eight different places in the country, among them Carl, Ed, and Captain
Crunch. A nationwide phone-phreak conference line has been reestablished through a
switching machine in --------, with the cooperation of a disgruntled switchman.
"We have a special guest with us today," Carl tells me.
The next voice I hear is
Joe's. He reports happily that he has just moved to a place called Millington,
Tennessee, fifteen miles outside of Memphis, where he has been hired as a telephone-set
repairman by a small independent phone company. Someday he hopes to be an equipment
"It's the kind of job I dreamed about. They found out about me from the publicity
surrounding the trial. Maybe Ma Bell did me a favor busting me. I'll have telephones in
my hands all day long."
"You know the expression, 'Don't get mad, get even'?" phone-phreak Carl asked me.
"Well, I think they're going to be very sorry about what they did to Joe and what
they're trying to do to us."
- End -