Posted anonymously to avoid penalties. My first phreaking experience:

I was about 13. I had come to visit my former next-door neighbor, Adam (names changed to protect the guilty). After I had moved out of my old house, some people (call them the Joneses) moved in. The Joneses were away a lot on business , or maybe avoiding Adam's music. On the night in question, they were in some far away place having fun. Adam was behind their house, at their phone hook-up. I was in his basement, reeling out phone cable.

Adam lived in his basement. A few weeks ago, he had unhooked his parents' phone connection from the house, in order to lure a phone repairman to his lair. While he distracted the unsuspecting Bell repair guy, his friend took about a thousand feet of phone cable, on a big reel, out of the back of the repair truck.

That reel contained the cable I was paying out to Adam, who was dragging it through the window and across his yard. Unfortunately, whoever had wrapped the phone cord onto the reel hadn't done a very good job. Within minutes, all thousand feet of it were tangled into a huge knot, almost entirely filling the closet we were working from. As I frantically worked to untangle the line so that we could reach the neighbor's house, Adam began tugging on it, tangling it further.

Eventually, we gave up and went off to do other things under the HPVAC rubric (he ran a BBS which included a good deal of warez, so we were probably near the AC end). We never did get the beige box working.
Phreaking was still alive and well a couple of years ago in the UK, and I expect it to be still around today.

Basically the main things phreaks got up to were: hacking voice mail boxes, teleconference systems, and PBXes.

To find such goodies, you had to dial, usually manually, hundreds upon hundreds of freephone numbers. (Wardialing)

Voicemail boxes where the easiest to get into, as often the PIN was the same as the box number, or something like 1234, 1111.... Generally phreaks looked out for boxes that were no longer being used, and took them over, setting up a funky little underground communications system for themselves.

Within a voicemail system it was often possible to get at the underlying features of the PBX. This could sometimes allow calls to be made through the system. Freephone call in, international call out; you see the appeal now?

Finally the other favorite toy of pheakers would be the teleconference system. This again could be automated, perhaps protected by a PIN. In some cases on dialing a number you were automatically dropped in the system, greeted to the sound of business people in a meeting. These systems were popular out of business hours for phreaks to have party calls.

phreaker = P = pico-

phreaking /freek'ing/ n.

[from `phone phreak'] 1. The art and science of cracking the phone network (so as, for example, to make free long-distance calls). 2. By extension, security-cracking in any other context (especially, but not exclusively, on communications networks) (see cracking).

At one time phreaking was a semi-respectable activity among hackers; there was a gentleman's agreement that phreaking as an intellectual game and a form of exploration was OK, but serious theft of services was taboo. There was significant crossover between the hacker community and the hard-core phone phreaks who ran semi-underground networks of their own through such media as the legendary "TAP Newsletter". This ethos began to break down in the mid-1980s as wider dissemination of the techniques put them in the hands of less responsible phreaks. Around the same time, changes in the phone network made old-style technical ingenuity less effective as a way of hacking it, so phreaking came to depend more on overtly criminal acts such as stealing phone-card numbers. The crimes and punishments of gangs like the `414 group' turned that game very ugly. A few old-time hackers still phreak casually just to keep their hand in, but most these days have hardly even heard of `blue boxes' or any of the other paraphernalia of the great phreaks of yore.

--The Jargon File version 4.3.1, ed. ESR, autonoded by rescdsk.

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