Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Confessions of a Prank Caller

When I was in seventh grade, caller ID didn’t exist. There was no internet, no cell phones, no chat, no iPods — even CDs were a couple years out for most people. In the late '80s you had an untraceable landline (simply called “a phone”), cable TV, a VCR, and maybe Nintendo. When you were nuts from playing Super Mario too many times, what was there left to do but listen to GNR on the radio and apply Lee Press-on Nails? And as the night wore on what was there left to do but break off those fake nails dialing one stranger’s telephone number after another?

I made a lot of prank calls. I remember making most of them with my cousin Amy. We’d page through the phonebook in my town and find interesting names. We repeatedly called a man named Fred Krueger and said awesome lines like, “Come to Freddy!” in a raspy voice. Other times we’d just wing it and dial random numbers. I did this once, and when a woman answered I pretended to be crying. I said, “Mom?” and she said, “Lisa, is that you?” and I said, “Yeaaah *sniff sniff,*” and she said, “What’s wrong honey??” and I said, “Can you come get me?” and she said, “Are you at the school?” and I said, “Yes, please come get me,” and she said, “I’M ON MY WAY.” I wanted to call back and tell her it was just a prank, but I was too scared. Holy shit. I still feel horrible about that. But that was the only cruel one. Usually the calls were harmless, amazingly hilarious fun.

The best ones happened at Amy’s. She lived in a somewhat bigger, richer city — a place where you could page through the phonebook and find a “children’s line” listed under the family’s main number. We would call the children’s line, and if a boy answered we’d just start talking to him. We made up names and personas and were flirty. (I would die if I had to hear what that sounded like.) A surprising number of them would stay on the line, readily divulging personal info and being generally unguarded. That’s how we got the idea: I would call a guy from Amy’s school, make up a name, pretend we had met, and get him to talk.

For the first call, I assumed the fake identity Julie Moore. I don’t recall much about Julie’s “life” or “personality,” other than she went to a different school and met the boy (we’ll call him Jeff) at some sort of sporting event he was in. She got his number from … you know, someone at his school, details … and thought he was cute. With his general celebrity as an eighth-grade athlete, he was probably approached by girls all the time and didn’t question the meeting.

I must have been staying at Amy’s house for a couple weeks, because I called Jeff many, many times. I asked him all kinds of questions, many of which were mouthed or scribbled on a notepad by Amy. There was a thrill to improvising and a weird kind of power in getting this popular jock to talk about himself in a way he probably wouldn’t to a girl at his school. It was also a little bit diabolical. I was talking to him so much, and we were starting to know each other pretty well — that is, Julie and Jeff were — so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he asked me to get together in person. Yet I was surprised. I panicked and said, “Sure, I’ll totally meet you at the mall tomorrow!” Even after hanging up the phone, this could have been easily resolved. Just don’t show up! He doesn’t have your number! He doesn’t know your real name! Maybe we were getting bored with how easy the phone thing was. Maybe we threw our hands up and exclaimed, “We’ve taken it this far, what choice do we have?” Whatever our foolish logic was, we decided to go.

When I say “we,” I mean both Amy and I, because I couldn’t really ask my aunt to drop me off alone at the mall. Amy brought a friend, and the plan was to separate in the parking lot and then meet up later. How did we meet up without cell phones? Did we set a time and place? Did I wear a watch? Speaking of what I was wearing, I had dreadful, enormous glasses at the time. (I hated them with all of my heart, but couldn’t get contacts until I turned 12, months later.) So I decided it would be best for the sake of looking prettier if I just went sans glasses. I guess I figured I’m meeting some older guy at the mall and have to pretend I’m this made-up person, I might as well not be able to see anything. Somehow I remember I was wearing an over-sized, peach-colored t-shirt and some long, loose, white linenish shorts. I also had curled bangs — not big hair-metal bangs, but low, modest, I’m-going-to-have-straight-bangs-in-two-years-and-discover-The-Cure bangs. And the remnants of a perm, or maybe a somewhat fresh perm. But these were the times, right? It was Wisconsin.

We arrived at the food court entrance of the mall. We separated in the parking lot, and I entered first. I knew what Jeff looked like from his yearbook photo, and I knew he would be there with a guy and two girls. I found them at a table by the Cinnabon, and we exchanged introductions. The girls were unexpectedly friendly, but I was hit with a skin-tingling surge of panic. What if they asked about my school? I didn’t even know its physical location. What if they asked about where I lived? I wouldn’t be able to just hang up. My only choice would be to flee on foot — and I’d probably fall down.

Thankfully I was spared. They didn’t question anything or seem interested in figuring out the mystery of my presence, and I really only remember one thing about the remainder of my time with them at the mall: We ran up the down escalators. Over and over, laughing and out of breath as security guards yelled after us. It was fun.

After that the calls to Jeff stopped for some reason. Maybe my stay at Amy’s house ended — it’s not like I was going to call him long distance. (Long distance! Another thing of the past.) Over the next year we tried this on several other boys, but none of the conversations escalated to an in-person meeting, and the last guy somehow figured out my connection to Amy and confronted her at school. She admitted it, and that was that.

I feel a little bad for kids today. Sure, the opportunity to meet strangers and pretend you are someone else has increased exponentially online. But everything is more traceable and trackable. You can’t email someone and say, “Come to Freddy!!” with the same effect, and they can just block your address. You can’t tie up someone’s line by calling back repeatedly and letting the phone ring and ring after they’d given up on yelling at you and shaming you. Honestly, I feel lucky that I was 11 in 1987 and not 2011. Today, Amy and I would probably be trying to write spam code.

Sarah Schneeberger scatters her talents in Minneapolis.

34 Comments / Post A Comment

Katie Walsh

Love this. Reminds me of when I was in 8th grade and my best friend and I would call up the hot new boy who rode our bus. His mom would answer and Kristen would say "Hi, is David there?" Then, as his mom went to go retrieve him, Kristen would throw the cordless handset at me and we'd play a heated, silently giggling game of hot potato with it, throwing it at each other, "No! You!" the phone bouncing on her bed as his little voice came out of it, "Hello? Hello?"

Fancy Mustard

This has made me SO nostalgic! My adolescence straddled a brief overlap of the time when most folks didn't have caller ID and the early days of AOL chatrooms (where I got into just as much trouble). My best friend and I made countless prank phone calls, usually dialing numbers at random - but sometimes targeting folks we knew. Once, we called the mother of the boy who lived next door to me, and reported the tragic news of her son's death. She didn't seem too distressed, though; our peals of laughter may weakened our credibility. "This is not a joke, Mrs. Lastname," we insisted when she scolded us for making prank calls. "Your son is dead - really, really dead and you need to come pick up his body because it's starting to smell."

I miss those days.


God I miss prank calls. We did the old 'Hi this is Amy from 31 Flavors Ice Cream. If you can name 31 flavors in 31 seconds you win a free trip to Hawaii. Ready, go!" It was amazing how many people actually started naming off ice cream flavors.


Ha ha, this reminds me of how many people we got to cooperate when we prank-called on July 3rd once. We asked random strangers to sing the Anthem "because we were mixing the voices of America" to be played over our local radio station the next day.

Okay Yeah

Ahhhhh I did that Baskin-Robbins thing so many times too!


My friend Sheri and I would just look up names in the phone book that had the first name listed and call them and just chat. We phoned a house party by accident once and wound up meeting up with the guys who answered, we became friends and didn't think it was strange at the time.

There was a YA book that I'd read about teens that did this type of prank calling, timing them to see how long they could keep people on the phone, probably where I got the idea.


I was always soooo envious of the kids who had the "TEEN'S TELEPH" line in the phone book. I don't think I ever actually knew anyone who had one; sure, some kids had second lines, but they weren't listed in the phone book so they didn't count.

Nowadays, can you imagine parents allowing their kids' private lines to be advertised publicly like that?

Hot mayonnaise

Once when dialing random numbers, the phone was answered "Good morning, Social Security Administration." I hung up so fast and we left quickly for a bike ride. I thought the FBI would be at the door within minutes to haul us off. OMG, the FEDS.


The bike, the best getaway. Was your phone clear by chance, with visible neon wires?


OH MY GOD. Mine was! I completely forgot about that until your comment. I wonder, now, if all of those wires were actually necessary or just for decoration. What a badass phone.

tea tray in the sky.

I had that phone too! I won it for reading lots of books in a charity read-a-thon in grade 6. I thought I'd really hit the jackpot, because phones are REALLY expensive. Stupid $7.99 phone.

Fancy Mustard

I had that phone and adored it for being so bitchin' - until I saw that Mary and Lucy Camden of "7th Heaven" had the same one. Lucy Camden and I also used the same face powder and carried the same day planner, which made me really unhappy since I was way cooler than that pious little snot.


I had one of those! They were perfect for late night gabbing because you could switch it to silent--that way your mom wouldn't hear it ring and you could prattle on into the wee hours 'til you fell asleep holding the receiver.

Hot mayonnaise

To keep the phone from ringing late at night, my sister used to call the weather line, wait for the friend to call at the appointed time, and then click over with call-waiting. I thought that was pretty smart.


I was a little too enthusiastic about the prank phone calls. But I was also very paranoid so I consistently used *67 (blocks caller ID and the *69 call return!). Unfortunately, the jig was up when my folks received the phone bill. Turns out that AT&T charges $.99 for each use! Bastards. That's something that you forgot to tell me, Jenny Parcelwood. Some bff you are! Also, did you know that when you call someone using 1-800-COLLECT from a payphone, the receiver's home phonebill gets charged? CRAZY, Jenny, CRAZY! Why are some-people's-kids always best friends with dumb-naive-kids. What were we talking about? Right. Sometimes I call in sick when I have a heavy flow--I think my manager may have a better tracking on my monthly gift than I do. Period.


Oh, the guilt I still have over some of the prank calls I made! I once pretended to be a manager at Toys R Us when calling the house of a boy I knew. I told his mother we caught her son being unruly in the store and kicked him out - and she believed me! THE SHAME.

Katie Ritter

This makes me want to read The Pigman again.


I remember that book being so amazing.


There's precious little to do growing up in Alaska, so my friends and I prank called A LOT. I remember my friend Dave finding "Bacon, Chris B." in the phone book. "Hey man," said Dave to Chris B. Bacon on the other end of the line, "I LOVE your name!"
Chris B. Bacon: What do you mean?
Dave: Your name! It's Chris B. Bacon!
Chris B. Bacon: Yeah...and...
Dave: DUDE! Your name is CHRIS! B! BACON! Like crispy bacon! That's so cool!
Chris B. Bacon: Oh yeah! I never really thought about that before.

And scene.

It was a magical time.


Just before the start of 10th grade, I called the school counselor pretending to be my best friend's mom and convinced her to switch my friend's lunch period to my own, 'her only friend', citing bf's 'psychological issues'. It worked!


My friends and I once called all the Will Smiths in the phone book and asked them if they were "gettin' jiggy wit it." Sadly, none of them were.


Oh Christ, this is like the time my cousin and I called several of the Potter, H listings in the phone book to blurt out "yer a wizard, Harry!" the moment someone answered.


...and, now I know what I'm doing this weekend. Thanks, Vivien!


Oh, "Marz," why do you have the best stories? You make me feel like I wasted my highschool years. Well, besides the time I was playing truth or dare at 6 am and dared my friend to walk around the block in her bra (no shirt) without mentioning that there was a busy four lane street on the opposite side of the block. That time was pretty good. Man, was she ever mad!!

Emily Groff

When I was a kid, we used to call 1-800 numbers from payphones because they're free. We usually called The Pleasant Company customer service numbers and made up stories about American Girl dolls. Which goes a long way to explaining why I like the Hairpin so much.


My friend and I would prank call the mall (hey we grew up in the suburbs). She liked to call Armani Exchange and it got to the point where an employee recognized her voice and chased her out of the store. I used to call the pet store and ask if they had invisible fish, which sounds stupid (because it is).

Also, my brother and I had our own phone line, and the phone in the living room had conference call, so sometimes we would call two different pizza places on each line, conference call them, and then mute our end, so the conversation went something like:

"You called to order pizza?"

"No--YOU called to order pizza?!"

My brother also liked to call a friend's brother as well as a pizza place, and he was always asking why the pizza place calls him all the time. Those were the days.

Also, don't forget when you would get crossed wires--I used to listen in to some girls chats with her boyfriend on my friend's house phone all the time.


These comments are so awesome. Also, kids are huge dorks.


I never tried prank calling, but my friends and I would make up fake AIM screennames and talk to our crushes that way. She would talk to the crush through her regular screenname, and I would talk to him through the fake screenname and say things like, "I've seen you around school;" "You're so hottt [triple t's intended];" and the biggest question: "Who do you like? What do you think of [insert friend's name here]?"

Sadly, those conversations never went anywhere.


Yesss, we used to call the Sex Hotline a lot - it was an advice line for teens, where we'd ring, ask something that sounded really stupid to our naive ears, and then giggle throughout the harassed employee trying to answer.

The best one went around like this though:
Ring a random number.
"Sveeennnnn? Svennnn are you there?"
- No there's no Sven at this house.
"Svennnnn. Don't pretend Svennnnn. Wait Svennnn, talk to your brother. He wants you to come home."
"Sven, this is your brother. Your mother is very upset and wants you to come home."
And all the way round through various family members, passing the phone around until my role as the grandmother.
"Sveeeen, Sveeen, come home, Sveeeen. Without you, there is no Sven and no cake."

God knows where that scenario came from. But it was hilarious!


Also some people I know would 'cyber-sex' over early chat-rooms, lying that we were at least 14. Thinking back to this gives me the shivers - at least Facebook isn't anonymous.

Erin Tracy-Blackwood

In high school, my friends made the best ever tape of prank calls. My favorite part was when one of them called Wendy's & told the manager their triple bacon burger had given him awful diarrhea. The call escalated until he told her he was going to bring a sample there to show them & the lady yelled into the phone "THIS IS A RESTAURANT! WE DO NOT DISSECT BOO-BOO!" ahhhhhh...that shit was golden. Funnier than anything the Jerky Boys ever did. I would kill to still have that tape.


We once discovered that many phone companies offered free text-to-speech services for their deaf customers, and being insensitive high schoolers, abused this. One person would be the deaf typer and the other would pick up the call when it came through. We'd type things like "hey baby what are you wearing" and "I think of you when I dream", and wait while the reader read out these phrases in the most robotic, emotionless voice they could muster. You lost the game when you laughed. Also, the reader would transcribe your laughter (*laugh*, if I remember correctly) so there was no cheating.

Feminist Killjoy

oh believe me, the tradition lives on via instant messenger!

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