What is a Phreaker


Phreakers are, in the simplest way to break it down, “phone freaks” people who when they hack they “hack” telecommunication systems. It could be argued that the historical beginning of the average day hacker stemmed from the work of Phreakers, since at the time anything that was networked happened over the telephone line and Phreakers original hacks bypassed computer systems in place to place phone calls. While there are no specifics on exactly when Phreaking started, a general consensus is that it started with AT&T’s implementation of automatic switchboards (compared to having operators handling the calls) for long distance calls.

2600 Hz Discovery

Some good names in the industry to know are Joe “The Whistler” Engressia and John “Captain Crunch” Draper. The Whistler was a blind kid whom around 1957 is said to have learned that AT&T implemented a system that worked by listening to the 2600Hz wavelength. He was able to, on his own, achieve this wavelength by whistling into the phone and learned quickly that a long “note” was interpretted as a Reset/Hangup, short tone for the #1 key, two short tone bursts for #2, etc. Captain Crunch on the other hand, learned the same thing, but by using the give away toy (a whistle) inside of Capt’N Crunch boxes. This whistle perfectly achieved the 2600Hz needed to hit his results. It wouldn’t take long for people to start using simple recorders to save these tones and play them back at will leading to wide-spread Phreaking.

Start of the Computer Age / Toll Fraud

Let’s jump into the personal computer revolution of the 1980s. Alot of tech people at the time would use the computer to access Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), which functioned in a similar way as our modern day Forums, and accessed via their modem. You wouldn’t perhaps call this the internet, but more just a huge network of direct connected computers over a long range. Phreakers, young and old, took to the BBS’s to share what they had learned, instead of before where most groups didn’t know anything from others and would rely on pure self exploration and experimentation. Then add in to the fact that AT&T was losing it’s monoply and more and more small long distance carriers started to join the picture. Birth of Toll Fraud, a what could be called a Million Dollar crime wave, came to be.

New long distance carriers, unlike AT&T who used the 1+ Area code to call long distance, had to resort to calling a local switch board, enter 6-7digit calling card number, and then add in the final recipients phone number. If you’ve ever used calling cards before, like those modern AT&T calling cards or tried services like 1800CallATT, then you know the lengthy process it takes to place a phone call. Phreaker took to their computer and modem to commit their next “hack” by trying to in essence guess calling card numbers in order to use them at a later point (basically stealing someone elses cards). They would make computer programs that could dial the local switch board, and randomly select a card number say 000000 and dial another number. If the call went through they’d save that number and move on to the next (000001), if it failed they’d scrape that number for it was not in use. One could say that Toll Fraud is still possible even today, but the likelihood of being caught is much much greater.

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