Prank or not?
June 12, 2005 7:40 PM   Subscribe

This happened to my girlfriend in 1987, and for years she's been telling the story as though it was a genuine mistake. The first time she told me the story, I immediately thought it was a prank.

She was working in the Carleton College call center at the time, working at a switchboard.

One night, she received a call from an "overseas operator". The operator told her to please wait for an incoming call for a student at the college.

There was a "whooshing" sound--which she describes as being like the sound of lines being connected over great distances--and a man speaking Chinese came on the line. She couldn't communicate with the person to find out who they wanted to talk to, and the overseas operator came back on the line.

The overseas operator told her to please hold, and again she heard the whooshing sound. Then a man speaking German came on the line, and again, she couldn't figure out who they wanted to talk to.

The operator came on again, and told her that if she hung up, it would cost the school 35 dollars. Another whooshing sound, and another indecipherable foreign language. At this point, she was in tears.

The operator came on again several more times, and continued connecting her to people speaking a variety of languages. The "cost to the school"--namely to her--kept going up. At the end, the operator came on the line and apologized.

This sounds to me like a hoax involving something like five people and a vacuum cleaner. Is anyone familiar with this specific kind of prank, or alternately, does anyone know that such things as "overseas operators" have ever existed? I am especially interested in knowing whether this kind of thing used to happen often to call centers, or if anyone has encountered this prank before.

Apologies for the length of this question.
posted by interrobang to Society & Culture (7 answers total)
I'm not sure if this is helpful or not, but it could have been a kind of scam.
I've worked in a US-based call center which had many "local" foreign numbers for our overseas customers to use to contact us. Every once in a while we'd get an international caller that asked us to connect them to another number, using some excuse, like it was another employee's direct number, etc. If we were dumb enough to fall for it, most of the time it was a scam to make long-distance or international calls for them at our company's expense.
Don't know if that's what was going on in your girlfriend's case, but its a possibility.
posted by dicaxpuella at 7:58 PM on June 12, 2005

There are such things as overseas operators, though most countries no longer need them to regularly connect international calls. I'm no expert on the phone companies, but it sure sounds like a hoax to me. Especially the bit about it costing the college money if she hung up - why would it cost her if she hung up but not if she stayed on the line? Seems it should be the other way around, if anything. It could have been some sort of scam attempt as well, but the details make it sound more prankish than anything else.

I haven't heard about any pranks that run exactly along the same lines, but this story reminds me a bit of a story my mom told me about a prank an old friend of hers pulled many years ago (probably ~1970). The friend dialed the operator, and claimed to be another telephone operator from another state - Washington or Michigan, I think - who was having some sort of difficulty with their phone lines. (What excuse he used for dialing an operator in another state to help, I don't know or don't remember.)

He claimed that for some unknown reason, he was getting interference on their lines from Canada. To illustrate this, every so often he'd simulate static or some such noise and start speaking French in another voice. The "interference" cut out, and he would say "There! Did you hear that? That's what I'm talking about!" The hapless operator had no clue what to do, so s/he transferred him to the supervisor, and the whole thing began again. He ended up getting transferred further and further up the chain of command, picking up technical jargon from each new person he spoke to so that his story would sound more authentic. I don't remember exactly how it ended, but I think eventually he "fixed" the problem and thanked the operators profusely for their help.
posted by Aster at 8:15 PM on June 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

See Phreaking, and particularly the red box. The "whoosh" doesn't sound right, but may have been a pre-recorded or synthesized dialing code that permitted international re-dialing from the college's line while the hapless call-center kid kept the line open under false pretenses. Given the time since this occurred, the details may not be accurate, but there are a few documentaries which cover phreaking, which could be used to compare her memories. Compare with the more-recent call forwarding scam, for instance.

That said, colleges are also known for pranks.
posted by dhartung at 8:40 PM on June 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

What dhartung said.

It seems to my recollection, however, that the phreaking method involved calling an international number that would not answer. Then one applied the appropriate control tones. This somehow gave you an identity in the phone system of an 'international operator', which supposedly gave you god-like powers with respect to the phone system. Supposedly, you could do cool things like break into someone's phone call (at any number you chose) and listen or otherwise disrupt.

My knowledge of this dates to the early/mid 80's. I read about a phreaking program for the Commodore 64 which produced the required control tones. This was also just at the time the FBI was majorly cracking down on phreaking, so I never got to try. I've always regretted having gotten so close to that game, just to have the door slammed in my face. I used to have such a fascination with phones.
posted by Goofyy at 10:59 PM on June 12, 2005

dhartung: Thanks!
Questions you never knew you had. There's a phone in this house that, besides the numbers, has keys marked A, B, C, & D. All we ever knew about it was some telephone guy passed through years ago and said grimly that we weren't supposed to have that, and left without any further explanation. Nobody in the house has any clue where it came from originally.
Is it something leftover from Autovon?
(Sorry to intrude, interrobang.)
posted by unrepentanthippie at 5:34 AM on June 13, 2005

unrepentanthippie: "There's a phone in this house that, besides the numbers, has keys marked A, B, C, & D."

Sell that thing on eBay. It's either an Autovon phone or possibly a lineman's handset. You can build one yourself by searching for directions for a silver box.
posted by Plutor at 5:48 AM on June 13, 2005

I think you might be a little closer with a blue box rather than a red box. The "red box" was used to create the magic tones that payphones made when you fed change into them, whereas the "blue box" was the magic box that made the noises that the operator consoles made when long distance phone calls were placed.

The era of blue-boxing came to an end in the mid to late 1980s (I believe) when most phone companies switched from in-band signalling (which used the tones the blue box emulated) to out-of-band signalling.

The whooshing sound could have been the 2600hz tone that was used for seizing control of trunks, although 1987 would have been the very tail end of in-band signalling and blue-boxing in general.

Perhaps Carleton College was on one of the last exchanges in the country to use in-band signalling, and your girlfriend was being used as a jump point for some clever phone phreaks? Possibly setting up a large multi-country conference call?
posted by ensign_ricky at 9:36 AM on June 13, 2005

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