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The Origins of Phreaking

Blacklisted411 coverThis article was originally published in the April 2004 issue of Blacklisted! 411. If you’re interested in a bit of background about the writing process and the battle to get paid, please see “Collecting your freelance money.” Most of the equipment described in this article was obsolete in 2004 when the article first appeared. I doubt that any of it would still work today. Either way, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! Even if the boxes don’t work, many of them are still illegal.

This article is also available in PDF format.

Hackers are people fascinated by technology and its applications. How could anyone who fits that description not be drawn by the allure of something as ubiquitous as the telephone? The phone on your wall is an amazingly simple device, yet the phone system on the other end of those wires is one of the most complex switching systems ever created.

A whole class of hackers arose in the last half of the 1900s that focused their attention and fascination on the telephone system, and they called themselves phone phreaks. Phreakers are a class unto themselves. They might mess with trunk lines just to see how things work (like when Steve Wozniak and John “Captain Crunch” Draper tried to call the Pope in Rome), or break into the telephone switches themselves, as Kevin Poulsen did when he rerouted lines to manipulate a radio station contest and win a Porsche.

No other type of hacking has generated the wealth of hardware gadgets (“boxes”) and massive underground community that phreaking has. Sometimes it is clearly illegal. A little later in this article, you’ll read about someone who went to jail just for possessing a device that could make free long-distance telephone calls. Sometimes it’s very useful. Long before they were available commercially, phreakers were building controls that flashed lights when the phone rang.

Have you ever dealt with a poorly-wired building with multiple telephone lines? Figuring out which number you’re using can be quite a pain. Telephone linemen use a telephone number called the ANAC (Automatic Number Announcement Circuit). When you dial it, an automated voice reads back the number you’re calling from. This number is not given out to customers, and is often changed every quarter, or even more frequently. When I was wiring a phone board in a building with 20+ phone lines, the ANAC number saved me a huge amount of time and trouble, and it saved a lot of calls to the operator, too. Unfortunately, the only way to find it is through a friendly phone company employee or your neighborhood phone phreak.

Where It All Began

I can’t say for certain the exact moment when phone phreaking was created, but I can tell you that Joe Engressia’s experience was one of the first, if not the first. It was around 1957, and Joe was eight years old. Joe was fascinated by telephones. When talking on the phone, it didn’t matter that he was blind.

He discovered that he could dial recorded messages, and listen to all kinds of fascinating things. Often, he would happily whistle to himself as he listened to the recordings, and one day, the recording stopped abruptly as he was whistling. Ever curious, he experimented. Because he was blessed with perfect pitch, he discovered that whistling the E above middle C (a frequency of 2600 Hz) would stop the recording every time.

What the eight-year-old Engressia didn’t realize was that the 2600 Hz frequency was an internal telephone company signal to take control of a trunk line, which opened up almost limitless possibilities for routing calls with no long-distance charges. Since he didn’t know what was going on, Engressia actually called the phone company and asked why the recordings stopped. That was just the beginning of his love of exploring the telephone systems.

When you placed a long-distance call in those days, the system was quite simple. You would connect first to your local telephone exchange. When it detected that you were dialing long-distance, it would scan the outgoing trunk lines for an “idle” tone-the 2600 Hz frequency that Engressia discovered. A phone phreak would dial an 800 number, which would trigger the local exchange to connect an idle trunk line and tag the call as free. Then the phreaker sent the 2600 Hz tone down the line. The long-distance exchange would interpret that as an indication that the call was complete, but the local exchange would still consider the trunk to be in-use for a free call.

At that point, the phreaker could dial anything and connect to anywhere, with the call still identified as free.

In the years that followed, Engressia learned how to manipulate the trunks after he connected, and got to know more phone phreaks like himself. He could place long-distance calls anywhere without getting billed for them, but that wasn’t what motivated him. He just wanted knowledge.

Others without Engressia’s perfect pitch had to come up with different ways to produce the 2600 Hz tone. Some used an electronic organ or synthesizer, playing into a normal tape recorder. Others decided to create devices to produce the tones that they needed. Those devices, called boxes, were fairly simple at first, just producing the 2600 Hz tone, and other frequencies needed to routing calls on the trunks. Those original boxes were called blue boxes. Later, a whole rainbow of boxes would emerge, doing everything from simulating the signal generated by a coin dropping in a payphone slot (a red box) to letting other people call you without getting billed for it (a black box).

Some discovered the simplest of all methods. The toy whistle enclosed in a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal, if one of the holes was covered, produced a 2600 Hz tone. This little whistle gave John Draper, who later became famous for his blue-boxing exploits, the nickname of Captain Crunch.

Engressia became obsessed with learning about phone systems. His dream was to get a job with the telephone company. He traveled around the country by bus, taking guided tours of telephone company offices wherever he could.

When Engressia was caught, articles about him ran in many Southern newspapers and magazines, and his fame grew. Soon, he was in touch with phone phreaks all over the continent. He even got a mention in Cecil Adams’ column, The Straight Dope (later reprinted on page 238 of Adams’ book, The Straight Dope Tells All).

In 1971, Esquire magazine ran an article about phone phreaking, featuring Engressia’s and Draper’s exploits, and those of some people who manufactured blue boxes, including one man who sold them to the Mafia. The Esquire article quoted Engressia as saying,

“I want to work for Ma Bell. I don’t hate Ma Bell the way 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.”

To many people, there’s a big difference between exploring the phone systems (as Draper and Engressia did), selling devices that can provide free, untraceable calls (as Steve Wozniak and the fellow in the article did), and out-and-out criminal activity like stealing and selling credit card numbers. To the telephone companies, and to prosecutors, they are all criminals.

Because of the Esquire article, Draper was investigated, and it led to the first of several jail terms for him. Engressia, too, went to trial. He was given a suspended sentence on the condition that he give up phone phreaking for good. An unexpected side effect of his trial was that the phone company refused him service, leaving him unable to get a telephone in his own name.

Despite these busts (or perhaps in part because of these busts and the publicity they generated), phone phreaking was at its heyday. The network of phreakers was growing, they were developing more and more ways to share information, and the phone companies hadn’t developed good technologies to prevent phreaking.

Hardcore phreaks often learned more about the telephone systems than the technicians that maintained the equipment. Eventually, Engressia did achieve his goal and become a troubleshooter for Mountain Bell in Denver. Others went the same route. “Control C,” a member of the infamous hacking group “Legion of Doom,” became an employee of Michigan Bell.

Phone phreaks communicated, of course, using the phone. They might use simple loops, or set up huge conferences like the famous 2111 conference that took place in early 1971. The 2111 conference, which took advantage of an unused test system in Vancouver, BC (Canada), went on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months. It was a never-ending stream of information sharing.

Later, the communication moved more to bulletin board systems, which started popping up all over the country in the 1980s. This led to actual written guides to phreaking, and later to police “sting” boards like the Phreaker’s Phortress (see my article “Hacker/Phreaker BBS Stings” in the April 2004 issue of Blacklisted! 411).

At the core of phreaking were those blue boxes and their multicolored brethren.

Blue Boxes

In a television special produced by WGBH in Boston, Steve Jobs talked about how he and Steve Wozniak, the famous founders of Apple Computer, got their start. “Woz and I had known each other since I was about 12 or 13 years old,” Jobs said. “And our first project together was, we built these little blue boxes to make free telephone calls, and we had the best blue box in the world. It was this all-digital little blue box.”

In fact, the two Steves sold these boxes door-to-door in the dormitories. Then, as Jobs said, “We had a lot of fun doing that.” Now, of course, that could lead to jail time. According to John “Captain Crunch” Draper, Woz actually made enough money from selling these boxes to build the original prototype Apple I computer.

Building a blue box is trivial. Even a non-geek can pick up a musical instrument that generates a fairly pure tone (such as a synthesizer), and play E above middle C into a tape recorder. Presto! Your handheld tape recorder is now a blue box.

For decades, the phone company could do little about blue boxes. They monitored phones with suspicious calling patterns, but that did nothing to hinder phreakers that used public pay phones. Gradually, though, as the system changed over from analog to digital, the 2600 Hz signal was phased out or blocked from consumer equipment, and blue boxes worked in fewer and fewer places. Today, a blue box is nearly worthless.

Red Boxes

With the rampant curiosity of phreakers, it was only a matter of time before somebody wondered how the phone company knew when coins had been dropped into a pay phone. Eventually, it was discovered that all you had to do was replace the 3.579545 MHz crystal in your dialer with a 6.5536 MHz crystal, and you could reproduce the sound of coins dropping in the payphone slot! Thus was born the “red box.”

By the way, it doesn’t really work the way it was portrayed by Razor and Blade in the movie Hackers. Remember the scene where they describe using a tape recorder to record the sound of $5.00 in quarters dropping into a payphone? Just hit “play” and you’ll never pay for a call again? The tones generated by the phone when quarters are dropped in the slot don’t actually get sent back to the earpiece of the receiver, so you can’t record them..

Instructions appeared all over the underground BBSs, showing how to modify a Radio Shack tone dialer to create a “red box.” Changing the crystal made the * key generate 1700 Hz and 2200 Hz instead of the original 941 Hz and 1209 Hz. Repeating it five times with the proper timing produced the tones that the payphone transmitted when a quarter was dropped in the slot. A black market was generated in 6.5536 MHz crystals.

Does this still work? There are probably places where it does. Federal laws have tightened up so much, though, that you can get jail time simply for possessing a red box. Even if you never use it. Even, in fact, if you don’t know what it is.

Ed Cummings, who writes under the pen name of Bernie S, found this out the hard way. In March 1995, he was arrested for possession of a red box, and ended up spending almost a year and a half in jail.

Of course, there is always more than one side to a story, and the Bernie S story is a long and complex one. The prosecutors pointed out that he was convicted earlier of tampering with evidence for removing batteries from a dialer, which made this a parole violation. They also noted that he was found to possess computer hardware and software that could potentially be used to obtain “unauthorized access to telecommunications service,” and “subversive” materials, including a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook and bomb-making instructions.

The defense pointed out that he has never been accused of actually using the red box, or any of the other devices. In fact, the core of the prosecutor’s case in this regard centers around the premise that a red box’s only use is theft of service, and that there is no legitimate purpose for owning one. With the passing of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, the Federal government has made it clear that the pursuit of knowledge is not always a safe one.

All in all, take this as a warning. Messing with red boxes can have extremely negative consequences. Neither Blacklisted 411! nor this author encourage building, using, or owning them.

Caller ID

Caller ID is offered by just about every telephone company these days. They advertise that people equipped with caller ID boxes can see the telephone numbers of everyone that calls them. Of course, you can easily block caller ID by either calling the telephone company and telling them that you would like caller ID disabled on your telephone line, or dialing a special prefix before your calls (typically *67).

Don’t let these lull you into a sense of false security, thinking you’re making untraceable calls. Remember the following:

  1. Caller ID can not be blocked when calling 800 numbers (or other toll-free numbers, like 888). Since anyone with a toll-free number is paying for the incoming call, they will know the calling number.
  2. Caller ID is not blocked on internal telephone company equipment. They can always look at the ID on the call, even if it is not transmitted to the phone you’re calling.
  3. Caller ID can not be blocked on “911” emergency lines, and on other special law enforcement lines.

How Caller ID Works

The caller ID data packet is transmitted during the “silence” between the first and second ring. It consists of a packet of mostly ASCII data sent at 1200 baud, with 8 data bits, 1 start bit, 1 stop bit, and no parity. The basic (“single message”) data packet looks like this:

Message Type: Always 04 hex.

Message Length: Total number of data bytes in message. Does not include the length of the header information or checksum.

Four-Byte Date: ASCII representation of date as two-digit month followed by two-digit day (e.g., 0321 for March 21st).

Four-Byte Time: ASCII representation of current time, in receiving party’s local time zone, as four-digit military time (e.g., 1430 for 2:30 p.m.).

Telephone Number: The telephone number field will contain one of three things:

  • The telephone number of the calling party (in ASCII)
  • “O” (Uppercase letter O, ASCII 4Fh), if the receiving party’s central switching office doesn’t have the phone number information. This could happen in a call originating from an area without caller ID capability.
  • “P” (ASCII 50h), if the person initiating the call has caller ID blocked, either because the caller requested that the central office disable it on that number, or because the caller pressed a bypass code (usually *67) before the call.

Checksum: All of the bytes of the date, time, and phone number, added together modulo 256. This means that only the eight lowest-order bits of the sum are kept, so that the checksum will fit in a single byte. This is used to verify that there hasn’t been a transmission error in the caller ID packet.

As an example, if I called you at 8:00 a.m. on July 4 from 202/555-1234, the caller ID packet would look like this (in hex):

04 12 30 37 30 34 30 38 30 30 32 30 32 35 35 35 31 32 33 34 90

The first byte says that this is a caller ID packet, and the second says that there are 18 bytes of data (12h). The data, in ASCII, is “070408002025551234”, which is the date, time, and telephone number. If the 18 data bytes are added together, the result is 390h. Keeping only the rightmost byte gives us the checksum of 90h.

If a caller disabled caller ID before making that call, the packet would look like this:

04 09 30 37 30 34 30 38 30 30 50 90

Again, the first byte says that this is a caller ID packet, and the second gives the length, which is 9 bytes. The date and time are the same as the previous packet, and the 50h, which is an ASCII “P,” indicates Privacy Mode, or disabled caller ID.

There is also a “multiple message” data format that transmits a name along with the telephone number.

Caller ID and Computers

Do you think that caller ID’s usefulness ends at that little $19.95 caller ID box that you attach to your phone line? Not at all!

Many of today’s modems have the ability to read caller ID information. With appropriate software on the computer, you can have a complete log of everyone that calls on your line, even when you’re not home.

Obviously, if you can do it, others can, too.

For example, a cracker targets a computer system discovered during a wardialing exercise. He places several calls to the system, trying to guess passwords. Each time he calls, the computer reads the caller ID information from the line and records it. The third (or tenth, or whatever) time that the cracker calls with an incorrect password, the system stops accepting calls from that number and pages the administrator. The administrator takes a look at the system logs, and calls the police.

Could the cracker have gotten through by disabling caller ID? That depends on how secure the target system is. It may be set to reject all calls with caller ID blocked, or to stop accepting such calls after the nth unsuccessful attempt.

To Sum Up…

There’s a lot going on inside our telephone systems. At the phone company’s end, all of the switching is being handled by computers, which means the system is both complex and vulnerable.

Despite the early history of phreaking as a lighthearted exercise for inquisitive youngsters, it blossomed into an expensive theft-of-service problem for telephone companies, and they responded with a very hard line in enforcement.

A do-it-yourselfer with a soldering iron and a handful of off-the-shelf parts can build a lot of useful and interesting projects that work over the telephone lines. As our privacy erodes in modern society, building illegal projects becomes harder to conceal. The phone company will neither know nor care if you build home remote-control devices using DTMF, or if you build phone ring amplifiers and line splitters. If, however, you manage to construct a box that gets you free phone calls or taps your neighbor’s phone, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes knocking at your door.

Enjoy phreaking. Enjoy playing with the phone system. But if you cross the line, you’d better watch your back.

SIDEBAR: Types of Boxes

There are many different types of boxes available for phone phreaks. Most are illegal. Some are apocryphal (to the best of my knowledge, for example, nobody has ever built a blotto box). If you are really interested in phreaking, I’d suggest you get on the Web and start searching. There are schematics available for many of the boxes. Make sure you know how to use a soldering iron, and that you have a good attorney.

If you actually choose to use one, prepare for disappointment. Many of these boxes, if they ever did work, no longer do. If you build one, and it does work, you may have just set yourself up for some jail time (were you paying attention during the Bernie S story earlier in this article?).

Just to satiate your curiosity, though, here’s a list of various boxes from the alt.2600/#hack FAQ, Beta 0.200. My commentary is added in italics.

Acrylic      Steal Three-Way-Calling, Call Waiting and programmable 
             Call Forwarding on old 4-wire phone systems 

Aqua         Drain the voltage of the FBI lock-in-trace/trap-trace. 

Beige        Lineman's hand set.
             Essentially, this is just a telephone with alligator clips
             on the end of the cord instead of a modular plug.
             Typically, they are all one unit (not a separate phone and
             handset), and the keypad often has the additional ABCD
             keys in addition to the numbers.

Black        Allows the calling party to not be billed for the call
             The concept behind a black box is simple. It holds the
             voltage on the line just enough to establish a connection
             so that you can talk to your caller, but not enough to
             activate the billing circuits at the phone company.

Blast        Phone microphone amplifier

Blotto       Supposedly shorts every phone out in the immediate area

Blue         Emulate an operator by seizing a trunk with a 2600hz tone.
             This is the box that made Captain Crunch famous.

Brown        Create a party line from 2 phone lines

Bud          Tap into your neighbor's phone line

Chartreuse   Use the electricity from your phone line

Cheese       Connect two phones to create a diverter

Chrome       Manipulate traffic signals by remote control

Clear        A telephone pickup coil and a small amp used to make free
             calls on Fortress Phones

Color        Line-activated telephone recorder

Copper       Cause crosstalk interference on an extender

Crimson      Hold button.
             Typically, this will be rigged to mute your microphone,
             but not your speaker, so that you'll still be able to hear
             the other party, but they won't be able to hear you.

Dark         Re-route outgoing or incoming calls to another phone

Dayglo       Connect to your neighbor's phone line

Diverter     Re-route outgoing or incoming calls to another phone

DLOC         Create a party line from 2 phone lines

Gold         Dial-out router

Green        Emulate the Coin Collect, Coin Return, and Ringback tones

Infinity     Remotely activated phone tap

Jack         Touch-Tone key pad

Light        In-use light.
             These can actually be purchased at just about any home
             electronics store that sells phone equipment.

Lunch        AM transmitter.
             These are used for monitoring, or tapping, telephones.
             Any conversation taking place on the phone that the lunch
             box is attached to will be transmitted, and can be picked
             up on a normal AM radio from a remote location.

Magenta      Connect a remote phone line to another remote phone line

Mauve        Phone tap without cutting into a line

Neon         External microphone

Noise        Create line noise

Olive        External ringer

Party        Create a party line from 2 phone lines

Pearl        Tone generator

Pink         Create a party line from 2 phone lines

Purple       Telephone hold button.
             See "crimson box."

Rainbow      Kill a trace by putting 120v into the phone line (joke)

Razz         Tap into your neighbor's phone

Red          Make free phone calls from pay phones by generating
             quarter tones.
             This is what put Bernie S in jail.

Rock         Add music to your phone line

Scarlet      Cause a neighbor's phone line to have poor reception

Silver       Create the DTMF tones for A, B, C and D.
             Often used with, or built into, a beige box.

Static       Keep the voltage on a phone line high

Switch       Add hold, indicator lights, conferencing, etc..

Tan          Line activated telephone recorder

Tron         Reverse the phase of power to your house, causing your
             electric meter to run slower

TV Cable     "See" sound waves on your TV

Urine        Create a capacitive disturbance between the ring and tip
             wires in another's telephone headset

Violet       Keep a payphone from hanging up

White        Portable DTMF keypad

Yellow       Add an extension phone

SIDEBAR: A Brief Overview of DTMF

Anyone with enough interest in technology to read Blacklisted 411! has almost certainly become curious about the tones you hear when you press buttons on a telephone keypad. If you’ve played around with them trying to make music, you probably noticed that each button generates more than one tone, like a harmony.

The system is called DTMF, short for dual-tone multiplexed frequency. Your telephone keypad is wired as a grid with a set of different frequencies (tones), and pressing any key sends out the two frequencies connected to that key-one for its column and one for its row. The frequencies are:

blacklisted keypad

So if you press the 0 on your telephone keypad, you’ll transmit a mix of 941 Hz and 1336 Hz. The A, B, C, and D buttons don’t appear on normal telephones, but are available on test sets used by telephone linemen. If you have a use for them, build a “silver box” (see below).

Why send two tones per key instead of one? It prevents the system from accidentally picking up background noise and interpreting it as dialing tones.

The specific frequencies used in DTMF may look like a bizarre mix of random numbers, but there’s a method to the madness. All of these frequencies can be generated by dividing down the output from a 3.579545 MHz crystal. Crystals are available in a variety of standard frequencies, and this is one of them. The eight frequencies required for DTMF are actually generated by dividing down the frequency of the crystal.

For example, take a look at the 697 Hz required for the first row (1, 2, 3, A). This isn’t really 697 Hz, it’s 1/5135th of the crystal frequency (3,579,545 Hz ÷ 5,135 = 697.0876339 Hz). That’s not exactly 697, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the DTMF generator and decoder use the same pattern to generate and read the tones.

It’s easy to build a set of dividers and make your own DTMF generator, but there are so many devices available these days that generate DTMF that it just isn’t worth the trouble. Telephone auto-dialers, PDAs, and modems all generate DTMF, not to mention the lowly touch-tone phone itself.

Decoding (interpreting) the DTMF tones is more complex. There are many DTMF decoder chips available, which are used in all kinds of devices, from telephone-controlled thermostats to home security systems.

You can also purchase standalone DTMF devices with computer interfaces. As an example, the DTMFLCD-2 from DSchmidt Technologies can be connected to a telephone line, and its 2-line LCD will show any numbers dialed on that line. A pushbutton on the board will transmit its entire memory over an RS-232 port to a computer.

MoTron’s XC-2 bidirectional ASCII to DTMF converter also uses an RS-232 (serial) connection, and it operates in realtime, allowing you to receive and send DTMF signals from a computer program.

You can find many more of these with a careful Google or AltaVista search.

Hacker/Phreaker BBS Stings

This article was originally published in Blacklisted! 411 magazine in 2004. If you’re interested in a bit of background about the writing process and the battle to get paid, please see “Collecting your freelance money.” The majority of what’s described in here is of purely historical interest, as it predates wide-scale use of the Internet and takes place mostly on bulletin board systems (BBSs). The stings do still happen, though…

Law enforcement has a mixed response to hacking. Most agencies don’t understand what it is, and don’t know the difference between an old-school hacker, a white-hat hacker, a cracker, a phreaker, or a virus author. The laws are often ambiguous, and prosecution is dependent on who, exactly, is hurt—or thinks they are.

Internet-based stings are getting fairly common. There are regular courses taught in the development of “honey pots” on corporate networks, and whole books about catching invaders in computer systems.

There are a lot of ways to set up a sting. Read Cliff Stoll’s book, The Cuckoo’s Egg. The whole book describes one large hunt for a digital invader (Hans Huebner, a.k.a. Pengo), including an elaborate sting where he created a fictitious government project as bait.

When Janaka Jayawardene was trying to track down the cracker that had invaded his systems at Portland State University (a minor, using the name Phantom Dialer), he used a classic cracker technique – the Trojan horse. He modified the telnet program to keep a keystroke log so that he’d be able to see everything that Phantom Dialer did when using telnet from the Portland State University computers. The tale of Phantom Dialer is told in the book, @ Large: The Strange Case of the World’s Biggest Internet Invasion.

These operations, fascinating for the way they pitted hacker against cracker, don’t fit the classic law enforcement definition of a sting, though, because they had a very specific target right from the beginning. A more classic sting was the Phreaker’s Phortress.

The Revenger and the Phreaker’s Phortress

In 1985, most police officers had never used a computer, and had no idea what a modem was. Sgt. Dan Pasquale of the Fremont Police was an exception.

Fremont, California is big enough to be called a city, but small enough to feel like a town. There are no high-rise office buildings, subways, and other trappings of big-city life. The police headquarters building overlooks a big lake in Central Park, and has a view of the mountains at the edge of town. With 100 square miles of land, Fremont has plenty of space to spread out, and it does.

Fremont, however, is no stranger to technology. It is at the edge of Silicon Valley, a few miles from San Jose. It was inevitable that technophiles would find their way onto the Fremont Police Department, and Pasquale was one of the first.

He had a Commodore 64 at home, just for fun, and the thought of combining his job in law enforcement with his computer hobby didn’t occur to him until he arrested a juvenile for shoplifting. The kid was carrying a stack of credit card receipts he had pulled from a dumpster, and Pasquale asked him what he intended to do with them. As they say in the gangster movies, the kid sang like a canary: He was part of a group that traded and/or sold credit card numbers.

Pasquale was fascinated by the whole computer underground and the BBSs that were popping up all over the country. He asked his superiors at Fremont PD for approval to set up one of the country’s first sting BBSs, and was told that the department would authorize a couple of hours a week of his time, but wouldn’t cover all the expenses of setting up and operating the BBS.

There was no problem finding Silicon Valley companies that were concerned with computer fraud and cracking at the time, and Pasquale went hunting for support. Apple Computer donated an Apple IIe computer with an external 40 megabyte disk drive (that was a lot of disk space in 1985) and a 1200 baud modem. Since his primary targets were people stealing credit card numbers and long-distance calling cards, he also got support from the credit card companies and phone companies.

Visa, MasterCard, and Wells Fargo Bank all created credit cards just for Pasquale’s sting. The cards had $500 limits, and the verification systems were set up to track them. AT&T, Sprint, and MCI donated calling card numbers with similar tracking.

The local phone company, Pacific Bell, agreed to install a telephone line into police headquarters that was shown on all the records as being in a nearby apartment complex. Pasquale said that the only way of actually tracing it to the police would have been to crack the 911 system – that was one thing Pacific Bell would not agree to mess with. All other verifications, including cracking the switches and social-engineering operators, would have led to the false front in the apartment.

With the infrastructure coming together, the next thing Pasquale needed to do was go undercover himself. He adopted the handle “Speedy Da Mouse” (for his favorite cartoon character, Speedy Gonzales), and started joining all the underground BBSs he could find.

Sysops of cracking/phreaking boards were justifiably paranoid, and most required verification of a new user’s true identity. Often, this involved a telephone conversation. Pasquale said, “Even then, I didn’t sound like a 17-year-old, so I needed another way to buy into their confidence.” That way was card numbers.

On virtually every board he contacted, giving them a valid credit card number or long-distance calling card number was all the ID he needed. Speedy began developing an identity.

Even as Speedy Da Mouse infiltrated BBSs across the country, Pasquale was putting the finishing touches on his sting BBS. The Apple IIe went into a broom closet at police headquarters, and Pasquale created a main board with five sub-boards. Most of the maintenance could be done from his Commodore 64 at home, so he didn’t actually have to climb in the crowded closet with the Apple very often.

The BBS took shape. He built sub-boards specifically for stolen credit cards, phreaking, and cracking. In September of 1985, Phreaker’s Phortress went online.

The sysop of Phreaker’s Phortress was another Pasquale identity: The Revenger. Speedy Da Mouse posted messages on every BBS he knew of, announcing this cool new board in California, and vouching for The Revenger.

I asked Pasquale what made the Phreaker’s Phortress look real. “It was real,” he replied. Sure, there were users who suspected this unknown Revenger guy of being a cop, but their suspicions went away when he handed out bait.

Throughout the remainder of 1985 and into early 1986, Pasquale gathered evidence and continued to learn about his BBS and the computer underground. He found, for example, that as he was monitoring the BBS one day, someone pressed the Z key 36 times, and was immediately given full access to the board. He contacted the company that had written the BBS software, and they sheepishly admitted that they had written this back door into the program to allow them to check on installations and see if they were legitimate, and to help sysops that locked themselves out of their own BBSs.

In late March, Pasquale went full-time. For two weeks, he got his warrants, and built up to the arrests in April. Seven of the targets were locals, two were out-of-towners who lived elsewhere in California, and another half-dozen were from other states. He rounded up the seven locals and turned the others over to appropriate agencies. To the best of his knowledge, the Feds never even followed up on the ones from out of state.

The seven locals all turned out to be juveniles. He had them red-handed, not just for computer intrusions and theft of long-distance service, which the courts didn’t understand, but also for having and using stolen credit cards. All seven plead guilty to possession of stolen property. They had their equipment seized, and they cost their parents a bundle in legal fees and fines.

Since they were minors, their court records were sealed when they turned 18. Their names were never disclosed to the press. I asked Pasquale if he had kept in touch with any of them. He told me that one had become a nuclear engineer and joined the military. As of a couple of years ago, he was serving on a nuclear submarine.

When Pasquale took down Phreaker’s Phortress, the credit card companies and long-distance companies shut off their bait cards. “Were they out a lot of money?”, I asked Pasquale. Actually, he told me, they went after the parents of the kids for reimbursement of everything they charged on the cards. In some cases, however, it was merchants that got stuck.

Visa and MasterCard have very strict rules about verifying purchases. These days, your card is run through a reader that dials up a verification service. In 1985, merchants were supposed to call themselves to check out purchases over a certain limit. In one case, one of the credit card thieves had purchased $3,000 worth of computer equipment, and the store never bothered to check the card, which only had a $500 limit. Because they broke the rules by not verifying the card, the store was stuck for the money. Their only choices were to write it off or sue the parents of the kid that bought the equipment.

As you can see, even though the criminal investigation may only net probation and confiscation of computer equipment, the civil lawsuits can drag on for years and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees and eventual settlements.

Could a sting like Phreaker’s Phortress happen again today? You bet it could. Pasquale doubts that a BBS sting would be worth it anymore, because everyone has moved on to the Web. There are still BBSs, although most of them are accessible through the Internet rather than dial-up, but nothing like the hundreds of underground boards that existed in the 80’s.

Today, Pasquale said, a sting like that would be done with a Web site. I asked Alameda County (California) Assistant District Attorney Don Ingraham if a similar Web sting had ever been done. Yes, he said, it has.

The Legality of a Sting

There’s nothing new about stings. Law enforcement has used them for decades. Ingraham explained that the only things police need to watch out for is entrapment. Pasquale set up a BBS and allowed people to talk about what they were doing. They freely shared stolen card numbers and bragged about their cracking and phreaking exploits. They did it on a system that he had the right to monitor.

“You can’t seduce innocent people,” Ingraham said. If you talk someone into committing a crime that they wouldn’t have otherwise committed, that’s entrapment. If you give them an environment where they can discuss the crimes without actually encouraging them to commit crimes, you have a legal sting.

It’s hard to argue that stealing credit cards is moral or ethical. It’s theft. Often, however, crackers present arguments that breaking into systems is a benefit to society. Ingraham appeared on TV’s Geraldo show with Craig Neidorf—the famed Night Lightning. Neidorf made precisely that argument, explaining that by finding security holes and pointing them out, he was improving security and making the systems better. Geraldo asked Ingraham whether he considered Neidorf’s cracking (Geraldo, of course, called it “hacking”) a public service.

“Right,” responded Ingraham, “and just like the people who rape a co-ed on campus are exposing the flaws in our nation’s higher education security. It’s absolute nonsense. They are doing nothing more than showing off to each other, and satisfying their own appetite to know something that is not theirs to know.”

Neidorf and Ingraham represent two ends of the spectrum, and most of us are in the middle somewhere. If you break into your brother’s computer as a gag, most people would not consider that to be a crime. If you break into Bank of America’s central computer and transfer a few million dollars to your own account, it’s pretty obvious that’s a Federal crime.

I asked Ingraham whether he still agrees with what he said on Geraldo over ten years ago. “Absolutely,” he responded. He explained that he wasn’t actually equating the severity of breaking into a computer with committing a rape, but that he felt the comparison of logic was perfectly valid.

We also discussed Ingraham’s opinion of Neidorf’s case. As you may recall, Neidorf was the co-editor of Phrack who was arrested for publishing a document stolen from BellSouth. The document was lifted by a member of the Legion of Doom, who went by the handle of Prophet. He copied the document from BellSouth’s computer as a trophy, to show that he had actually been there. It passed through several hands, and finally made its way to Neidorf, who edited it down and printed it in Phrack.

The document, which became known as the “E911 document,” was a description of the BellSouth Extended 911 service. Not the equipment–the service. There was virtually no useful information about the computers at all. BellSouth claimed the document to have a value of $70,000, which made the theft and possession major felony offenses. It was only after the E911 document was found in a directory of products offered by BellSouth, and court shown that anyone who wanted it could get it for $13, that the trial began to fall apart.

Ingraham, who was responsible for overhauling some of California’s search and seizure laws, felt that Craig Neidorf was a nice guy that was taken down by a very bad warrant. Unlike many prosecutors, Ingraham is no stranger to the world of hacking, cracking, and phreaking. He subscribes to 2600, and regularly reads Phrack and Blacklisted! 411. He believes that publications like this are covered by the First Amendment, and that they contain useful information as well.

It’s unfortunate for Neidorf that he was in Chicago rather than Alameda County, California. It sounds like he would have fared much better.

What Should You Do About Stings?

If you’re not doing anything illegal, a sting board (or Web site) shouldn’t be anything for you to worry about. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way it works.

The laws in this country are based upon the assumption that individuals are innocent unless they are proven guilty. It is likely, however, that if you get involved in a board where criminal activities are being discussed, you will end up being investigated. Even if you are never charged with a crime, it could cost you money for legal fees and a great deal of potential hassle if your equipment is impounded.

Your best bet is to stay clear, or just lurk. You just never know who’s on the other end of the network.

Collecting your freelance money

wad of cash

This is the perfect picture, right? Because everyone knows freelance writers get paid with great wads of cash.

When we start out working as writers, most of us think that means we’re going to spend our time writing. It can come as a shock when we find ourselves spending so much time marketing ourselves and our work, sending in proposals, queries & outlines, researching editors & agents, rewriting, and doing accounting. The real shock, however, comes when you have to become a collection agent.

For the most part, I’ve been lucky. The magazines I’ve dealt with have been great to deal with. But there have been a few exceptions, two of which I’ve mentioned briefly on this blog before.

The first step in collecting money is setting expectations. Make sure that you have negotiated payment terms in advance and that you have them in writing. Some small publications may not have contracts, but you can discuss the terms in email so you have a written record. Know whether you’re being paid on acceptance or on publication. This makes a big difference.

“On acceptance” means that you will be paid when the editor agrees that your article is done and meets the magazine’s expectations. Actually, it’s no guarantee that your check will be cut that very day — only that acceptance is the trigger for generating your payment. You may get it in a week or in a month.

“On publication” means that you’ll be paid when the issue of the magazine or newspaper containing your article hits the newsstands. Given typical lead times, you may well be turning in an article in July that’s intended for publication in December. Being paid on acceptance means probably receiving your money in August. Being paid on publication means more like January. Or possibly never.

This brings up another contract issue: the kill fee. For a writer being paid on publication, a kill fee guarantees that you will still get paid something (usually a third to a half of the full fee) if the editor decides not to use the article after all. To me, it’s a danger flag if a magazine that pays on publication refuses to put a kill fee in the contract.

I’ve had hundreds of articles published, and have only had serious problems getting paid twice. Once, I decided it wasn’t worth it. The other time, I decided to do whatever it took to get my money. Here are the stories:

A kill fee would have helped

In 2004, I was invited to write a guest column for a Canadian medical journal. As a freelancer, it’s always nice when someone approaches you instead of the other way around. I was excited about the opportunity to break into a new market and about the subject of the article, so I got sloppy on the contract and accepted a deal with no kill fee. I wrote about 700 words on the quality (or lack thereof) of medical information on the Internet from a patient’s point of view.

Between the time I wrote the article and the time it was scheduled to print, the magazine was sold. The new owners didn’t want to use what I wrote. Even without a kill fee in the contract, it’s often possible to get something after the fact, but I was hampered by new owners who were disinclined to pay for work commissioned by someone else and by the fact that I was dealing with a magazine in a different country.

A killed article can also be sold to another publication, but I had no contacts in the market so I pushed it onto a back shelf. Eventually, I just published it in this blog.

Being a pest to get paid

Blacklisted411 cover

The issue of Blacklisted! 411 that contained my Origins of Phreaking article.

Another example where the magazine approached me instead of the other way around was a now-defunct computer hacking journal called Blacklisted! 411. I wrote some of this story in a blog post entitled Finding buried treasure — that you buried! The rest of the story goes like this:

The editor, Zachary Blackstone, emailed me about an essay that I had on my website. We chatted back and forth and I told him about some content I had written for a book that wasn’t going to happen. Two of the chapters from that book would make fine feature articles for his magazine: The Origins of Phreaking and Hacker-Phreaker BBS Stings. After a bit of negotiation, I told him he could run the essay free if he paid for the other two. All was well.

I sent him the two articles, and after he checked the word count, he told me that he’d pay $1,125 for them. The essay ran first, then Origins of Phreaking. I expected a check within 30 days, but it didn’t come. A string of emails with Blackstone followed, during which payment was processed and didn’t happen. While this was going on, the next issue came out, with my BBS Stings article in it.

Promises continued (I wrote a lengthy description of the dispute including email excerpts on Writer’s Weekly’s “Whispers & Warnings” if you’d like to read it) and I grew more and more concerned about getting paid. Blackstone stopped responding to me, and all of my research failed to come up with a physical address. Everything was PO Boxes.

Clearly, it was time to step up the game. First, I placed the articles on my personal website and added this paragraph to the beginning of each:

WRITERS BEWARE!!! Blacklisted! 411 claims to be a paying market, but they have not paid me for the articles I wrote for them. The editor-in-chief, Zachary Blackstone, told me on March 8, 2004 that payment of my $1,125 had been authorized and a check would be on its way shortly. All I have received from him since then is excuses. If you have a telephone number or physical address for Zach Blackstone or Blacklisted! 411 magazine, please email me as soon as possible! Thank you.

I went through the magazine and collected contact information for all of the other authors and sent them emails asking if they had been paid for their work. Most didn’t respond. A few said that yes, they were having trouble getting paid. Several said they had donated their articles without expecting to be paid. Nobody said that they were paid promptly.

Then I hit paydirt. I found out that they had reserved an exhibit table at a huge hacker conference called DEFCON. I went to the appropriate newsgroup online and posted this:

Anyone going to DEFCON? I can’t make it this year, but I understand Blacklisted! 411 magazine is going to have a booth. I’m a professional writer who wrote some articles for them, and they owe me over $1,000. The editor-in-chief, Zachary Blackstone (*** promised payment on March 8, but has delivered nothing, despite using my articles as cover stories in the past two issues.

If anyone has a physical address or telephone number for Blacklisted! 411 or Mr. Blackstone, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

If you’re going to DEFCON, please stop by their booth and ask them why they don’t pay their writers.

If you’re a writer, STAY AWAY from these folks.


Apparently, that was the straw that broke Blackstone’s camel’s back. I received an angry phone call asking, “If I send you a cashier’s check by FedEx, will you shut the f*** up?”


“Will you take all that crap down?”

“You know perfectly well I can’t take down posts to Usenet newsgroups. I will, however, take down the other notices and make it public that you’ve paid me.”

I had my money the next day.

Postscript: A few years later, I happened to come across a website created by one of Blackstone’s former staff members, Israel Torres. He dedicated this entire website,, to describing the issues he had with Blackstone.

Finding buried treasure — that you buried!

Poker odds book sampleIt’s a rather surreal experience. Here I am, going through a bunch of my writing archives looking for a book proposal template, and I stumble upon an old proposal from 2005. I remember coming up with the book idea. I remember doing the research and sending out proposals. What I didn’t remember was actually writing a few chapters of the book to include in those proposals.

Sometimes, looking at my old work is exciting. I found a 20-year-old magazine with one of my articles in it, read the article, and thought, “Hey, I’m good!” Other times, it’s the opposite. I was looking for some clips on a particular topic and came across one of my old articles. I actually cringed. I couldn’t believe someone actually paid me for that and published it.

Today’s experience is different. The proposal I found was for a book about the mathematical side of poker. As I read through these sample chapters, I honestly don’t remember writing them. But I like them! I have two other projects in the works right now (the Myths & Legends of Tea and another Who Pooped in the Park? book that I’m not talking about yet), but I do believe I’m going to come back to this idea.

The advantage of being a packrat

Packrat (Neotoma cinerea)

Go ahead. Be a packrat. Packrats are adorable!

Everywhere you turn for advice these days, people are telling you not to be a packrat. Simplify your life! Throw away your old junk! If you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it!

It’s different when you’re an author. You never know when that old idea that went nowhere might be exactly what an editor is looking for. Having a book or article turned down repeatedly can sap your enthusiasm. That’s what happened to me with this book on the mathematics of poker. After having it shot down a few times, I gave up and filed it. Now that I go back through my notes (you do keep notes on your old projects, right?) I feel my enthusiasm returning. I’m going to finish up what I’m working on while this percolates in the back of my head and then blast it back out in a different format.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Once upon a time, I wrote an opinion piece about computer hacking. I didn’t find a market for it and this was before the days of blogs, so I stuck the article on my website. Lo and behold, it became the most popular page on the site, by a pretty hefty margin. The more emails I got about it, the more I thought I should turn it into a book about hacking and phreaking. I put quite a bit of time into the book, but I had a full time job and I ended up shelving it for a while.

Technology inexorably marches onward. While the partially-completed book sat untouched, it became swiftly more obsolete. When I came back to it, I just couldn’t bring myself to start my research over from scratch. But re-reading it showed me that the history section was still relevant and still interesting. When a computer hacking magazine called Blacklisted! 411 contacted me and asked to reprint the essay from my website, I made them a deal: I would turn that history section into two feature articles. If they paid their going rate for those two features, they could have reprint rights on the essay for free. They jumped at the offer, and I ended up making $1,125 from that “useless” manuscript.

For anyone that’s interested, you can read one of those feature articles, The Origins of Phreaking, on my website in either HTML or PDF format.

The moral of the story

It’s not enough just to keep your old notes, articles, essays, manuscripts, poems, proposals, and ponderings. You need to go back and look at them every now and then. Think about whether any of it has suddenly become relevant. Perhaps that magazine you just wrote an article for might be interested in one of your old unsold pieces. Perhaps that editor who sent the “we don’t want this but keep trying” rejection might like one of your old ideas better.

Don’t just archive your old stuff on a CD, either. You will never get around to loading that CD back up and looking at it. You also might lose it. The dog might eat it. Keep those files on your hard drive where searches will pull them up. You might be surprised at how you end up finding one.

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