Nicely written. Humour comes in swift and silently, and makes this a really enjoyable read. I was looking for more info about how to beat the quarter-checker, but even without that, worth the time.Reply
In the 1990s credit cards were pretty uncommon in Europe. Most shops that a student would shop at did not accept any.
When I visited the US I was shocked that you could do all kind of business by just telling or typing in the number on the phone. I soon learned that cheaper businesses (e.g international calls at discount rates) did not accept my foreign card. However, more expensive businesses (like AT&T to stay at the same example) just accepted the number, no questions asked. CVV wasn't in use. A concept that exceeded my imagination, credit card numbers are not that secret, everone working at a checkout could collect them. When reading this I guess they would have also accepted phantasy numbers with a matching checksum.
My conclusion back then was: For those operating at comfortable margins some loss by fraud is just priced in. Those offering cheap prices don't have the luxury to do so, so they reject everything that is not easy to verify, like e.g. foreign cards.Reply
I grew up with a payphone in a entire phone booth (2 actually) in my house. My dad bought old phone booths, old payphones, amd fixed them up. He still has one in his living room.Reply
I found that if you had 2 adjacent pay phones you could make free calls by inverting the 2 handsets and placing the call on one phone, but putting your money in the other so the sound of the money dropping would make the operator think that you had paid for your call. Your money would be returned to you when you hung up the second phone.Reply
I remember doing something similar to get ISP access in the early 90s. Like AOL various ISPs would be bundled into CDs/floppies and offer a free trial.
One of them did not validate the card number, so you could just type in 000000000000 or whatever and your free trial was enabled for a month or whatever and then be auto cancelled when they tried to bill for your first month after the trial. In the UK though local calls were not free and charged by the minute.
I think that ISP also bundled a <1.0 version of Netscape's Mozilla (0.8?) on their disk which was nice as otherwise I only had mosaic.
Edit: I think the version of netscape/Mozilla was this one - I distinctly remember the "M" logo that would rotate as pages loaded slowly on a 14.4 modem: https://www.webdesignmuseum.org/uploaded/old-software/web-br....
Curious that it was called "mosaic netscape" - I don't remember that.Reply
What do you do for living now? B & E ?Reply
That's a really awesome story with a great opening, middle, and especially the end, if one ignores the adolescent fraud. I think it really highlights the simple joy that technology that literally just works can bring. I'm around the same age as the author, a little younger in fact, but there's just something about today's Internet and a lot of the overwhelming amount of technology that just isn't fun or memorable. From game consoles to land lines to various other things, there were pieces of technology that just worked and worked well. Of course, there was technology that didn't work well, but I think part of the tragedy is that a lot of technology that worked well has been replaced by "better" technology that doesn't work well.Reply
Does anyone remember a red phone book marketed as the “talking phone book?”
In my town in the 1990s, it had the unique feature of a free local number you could dial and use to play games, get movie showtimes, find out the time, and more. It was almost like audio-only webpages you pulled up with a four digit code after initially dialing a regular phone number. I would spend lots of time on there, typing in random codes to see if I could find an Easter egg. And I did.
I found a code - I think it may have been 9876 - that opened up a service where you could leave a short message that the next person could hear. Frequently it was nothing much, but sometimes it was … pretty strange, sometimes pretty entertaining.
Did anyone else stumble upon this strange corner of phone service, where you left a recording for strangers, and listened to what they left?Reply
> Next, I used a stud finder to detect a stud on the wall
Naturally, I imagine he used the stud finder on himself a few times when his wife was in the room.Reply
Random, but this reminded me of the mid 2000s when you could text google for info. GOOGL was the SMS code I believe. I miss it still. You could send them a query and they would respond with directions, phone numbers, and other kinds of results. You could also call Goog-411 or some variant to get similar info.Reply
It is really cool that there's still some fun to be had with something as simple as POTS, and that this person's experiences, which are a part of hacker history, are preserved and published. Great article!Reply
I explained what it was and we took turns listening to the dial tone. I put some quarters in and called my cell phone to show her how it worked.
Nostalgia: Early 1960s near Liverpool UK. Being taken up the street to the phone booth to learn how to make a phone call (coins, dial number, press A button, talk, hang up, press B button to claim any leftover coins). Big thing when you are 6 years old.Reply
Just last month I got the opportunity to assist with an art installation that involved a phonebooth, which meant I got to take one home and poke around its insides. It was some of the most delightfully 90s tech I've seen in a while - 2-layer PCBs, all through-hole components, only a few well-known ICs... I ended up carefully removing all the "brains" and hooking up the insides to a raspberry pi, which could join a Discord channel or answer an incoming call when you picked up the phone.
Standing next to the phone talking to friends was strangely fun and nostalgic experience, despite the fact I had only used a payphone once in my life. I got a cellphone very quickly (perks of having a tech journalist in the family), so by the time I was old enough to be able to buy a phone card with my own money I no longer needed it. During the pandemic, all of the remaining phonebooths in the country were quietly shut down and dismantled.
I know it's completely irrational, but I'm still sad that I had to eventually return the one I worked on and that in the many years the system was still operational it never occurred to me to buy a card and call someone from a phone booth just for the fun of it.
P.S.: If anyone from Slovenia or other ex-Yu countries has any ideas how I could get my hands on one of those Iskra payphones, drop me an email (address in bio). I have so many ideas for projects involving them, but it seems that I'm a bit too late to stand behind the Telekom dumpster and snag a few before they're scrapped.Reply
How come the ISP didn't blacklist his address?Reply
I want to do this but with a real British phone booth.Reply
> > Have you ever used a payphone and thought to yourself, “That would be a great novelty idea for the pool room, family room, or office. What a conversation piece”.
> Why yes, payphone.com, yes I have.
This had me rolling but it's also a great example of knowing your niche target audience.Reply
I did this back in the early 2000s, when Asterisk first became really popular. My plan was to create an Asterisk PBX in my house and hook the payphone to that and be able to use it to receive and make VoIP calls. Unfortunately, the project never got off the ground because I bought a phone 1) without any keys to the locks and 2) without the proper software and interface cables to be able to program it. I ended up selling it again on eBay for what I paid for it.Reply
great, sweet storyReply
I did really enjoy this post, but is it just a tiny bit weird how casual he is about repeatedly committing fraud? Not asking for some grand apology (lord knows the crap I did as a kid), but the post is written like defrauding an ISP is just a normal and fine thing to do. Am I off base here?Reply
I don’t know if I enjoyed the idea or the writing more, but I’m very happy I read this. Thank you.Reply
Back when I was a kid I had alot of fun using methods to get free phone calls on these things. Like, beyond just red-boxing or whatever (Past that time).
In Japan, they would just accept DTMF tones from anything that would generate them. There was all these people using hacked cards that they installed countermeasures against which were hilarious because people using these hacked yakuza cards would keep one foot in the doorway in case the fabled alarm would go off, i knew a guy who did this thinking naaah it would never happen to me. NOPE happens to him, he had to squeeze himself out of that phone booth and run after a red light started flashing and the door slammed shut on his shoe... Literally just playing the DTMF tones into the handset would have gotten past that on every 'grey phone' out there (The ones that advertise ISDN connectivity). Wouldn't be surprised if that still works if they still have those phones anywhere.
The other way I did it in another country was a telephone company test line (toll free!) which would give you 30 seconds of silence then a dial tone (presumably 'remote'). From this dial tone you could call anywhere in the world. We got some list that phonelosers used to make and called places like the president of Kenya.
This guy mentions using a payphone which accepts incoming calls to get the internet as a kid in the 90s. Those which still rang on incoming were mostly gone by my time but a few were still configured to act like that. Was fun to sit down the road with a cellphone and watch people be scared to pick up the line after watching it ring for a few seconds.Reply
I feel an incredible disconnect with people like this who casually tell public stories about their youthful credit card fraud and other computer crimes (cf. every single story in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution).
I understand the anti-capitalist (or at least anti-corporate) and anti-authority attitudes of hacker culture but these stories are not told by anarchist cyberpunks "sticking it to the man" but almost invariably by sheltered (usually WASP) yuppies working for billion dollar companies or in this case, Slack.
These aren't so much stories about clever hacks and youthful rebellion but of a youth isolated from consequences for criminal offenses that would otherwise have been sufficient to give them a career-ending criminal record.Reply
My freshman year of HS, I bought a DTMF dialer from Radio Shack. This was a small handheld device with a shallow coupler on the back, and buttons matching those on a DTMF telephone, and pressing them produced the same tones as a telephone. The dialer had a memory function.
One day I noticed the tones produced by putting a quarter in a pay phone to tell the backend switch a quarter had been inserted. It was, like, beep beep beep beep beep, really fast. Dimes and nickels made the same tones, but they were shorter, less beeps.
Something sounded familiar about these tones, and through trial and error, I realized these tones were made from the DTMF tones of either the asterisk key or the octothorpe key (I can't now remember which, and btw, it is not a hash symbol, it is an octothorpe). By putting enough presses of the right key into the memory of the Radio Shack dialer, I could fool payphones into thinking I had deposited quarters. I had turned my off the shelf Radio Shack DTMF dialer into a Red Box, without actually doing anything to the hardware or electronics. And it was a lot more svelte than the original Woz Red Boxes, about the size of a flip phone when closed.
At first, this worked at every payphone, always, any kind of call, local or long distance. I spent a lot of time at the airport and hotel pay phone banks calling a gf long distance. But eventually, my DTMF dialer stopped fooling the switch, so I could no longer make free local calls. But with long distance calls, I'd usually get an operator once the spoofed coin inserts failed, but they would always still fool the operator, who I think assumed line interference prevented (what I assume were) the new digital switches from recognizing coin insert tones. Then that stopped working; somehow the operators knew what I was doing and would accurately describe my spoof to me.
So it no longer worked with ordinary common pay phones. But I found a pay phone installation that was not ordinary, I believe it was called a "Smart Payphone," but it was not smart in the way we think of smart phones today; it just had some extra electronics and a small 3 line LCD panel which told you how long your call lasted. I could continue to make local and long distance calls from only these types of pay phones for a few more years until every place I knew there had been one had been uninstalled.
It only occurred to me later that I was not stealing from AT&T or some local Bell affiliate. I had been stealing from whomever owned the pay phone, who still had to pay for those long distance calls I made. I have carried the guilt and shame of my juvenile crimes ever since. Not kidding. That was all very, very wrong.Reply
Awesome, I used to work with Mitel PBX which have a feature called DISA which allows you to call a number and place calls from there. The number you call will give you dial tone and you could place calls anywhere I looked up the list of customers with Visa find the main number and try the first 20-100 numbers which was normally the range used (sold DIDs by Telco) during my installation I gave myself access to those via 1800 numbers so it was pretty much able to call LD/cell phone which used to be expensive beforeReply
Looking at that pay phone makes me think of those ancient phones your had to hand crank. Looking real old now.Reply
Excellent story, writing, and end. It's absurd to install a payphone in one's house, and yet after reading this, it feels completely necessary.Reply
Fun story, and that list of door games was a blast from the past. I especially recall some fun times playing Planets: TEOS, trying to whittle down the runaway leader while he was away on vacation...Reply
You are on my leaderboard for the best writing for this year.
Thank you for rekindling some memories.Reply
Best article I've seen here in a while. I really miss payphones for some reason. Loved that he's teaching his daughter.
> My daughter is 5 - I don’t want her dialing 911.
Five year old girls calling 911 has saved a lot of lives. I just listened to a whole podcast series about that.Reply
I feel like the logical next step is for the author to discover PBX, such as Asterisk or something built on top of it. Then they can call between the two in-house phones and also dial out to the real phone line in an emergency.
Just need an old PC, a compatible dial-up modem with voice, and a card with a few FXO ports to go to the payphone and child's phone...Reply
Ok, I need one of those. Very funny and well written piece...
> I’m not quite ready to reap what I sow.Reply
I enjoyed reading that!Reply
I always found it interesting that payphones could receive calls in America. Australian payphones can't receive calls (at least, not to my knowledge), and it always seemed like it would be ripe for abuse if they could.Reply
> My daughter is 5 - I don’t want her dialing 911.
Well… hmm. I taught my daughter how and when to do that by that age. You never know. That could end up saving a life. She knows not to do it frivolously. This does not seem too advanced a concept for a kindergartner.
That said, intercom-like internal system Bertrand built seems to be much cooler than having the real phone.Reply
This was a fantastic read and the end just put a smile on my face thanks for sharing.Reply
Payphone.com is wondering why sales are through the roof!Reply
Wow this brings back memories. I stayed at a high school hostel, and and remember calling the high school sweethearts after 9pm, when they had super cheap fares. 9 minutes for an equivalent of $0.02.
There was only one phone, so the rest of the kids were in a queue waiting to call theirs. You'll get an earful if you were the one to fill the coin storage (the phone company only comes once a month or so to collect the money) or jam a coin.Reply
This is really cool, but I was hoping he had gone all the way with the setup and had a simulated CO backend that actually validated that coins were inserted to make a call.Reply
They should keep at least a few pay phones. Works great when your phone battery dies. I think I have used one as recent as 2010s.Reply
I had that same clear landline phone. Maybe from Radio Shack.Reply
Back in my day this was all called phreaking [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phreaking ]
I had the pleasure of knowing a guy who knew a guy when I was in school. Basically there was a prefix 786 that you could (within the area code of course) dial the prefix for the callback 971 and the last 4 digits of the host (thankfully the number of the pay phone is right there on the pay phone) and then hang up twice the phone would ring until you picked the phone up.
Fast forward to another thing of the past, the mall! The mall had BANKS of pay-hones just sitting around. So a group of friends and I got to all of the banks and decided to make all the phones ring. We walked around the mall forever as people just looked at the ringing phones and carried on about their lives.
After doing it for about an hour security caught on and I got banned from the mall, I think for the fourth or fifth time.
It was a beautiful site to see. Two dozen or so payphones just ringing and people completely perplexed as to why.Reply
I enjoyed learning about BBS door games.Reply
Thanks for this article and the comments. Reminds me of a trick we kids did in the early 60s (yeah, sorry) with the British 'phone box' pay phones. We called it 'tapping the phone', but it wasn't spy style listening. Passed from kid to kid the amazing trick was you could dial the number by tapping the handset (10 taps for zero, 9 taps for 9, ..) and the phone would ring the number but you didn't then have to 'press button A' to speak.. you simply made the call, spoke normally, hung up, and pressed button B to get your money back! Sadly, I never tried international calls... When we moved to New Zealand around '63-4, I discovered the phone dial was reversed, in the UK it was 1-9,0, in NZ it was 9-1,0. (So emergency calls were 111 not 999 as in the UK.) The trick still worked but, except for 0, you had to '10s complement' the taps. Maybe because of that none of the kids I knew at the time in NZ appeared to know the trick...Reply
I’m, not sure admitting to fraud, even if the ISP is probably long gone, is a great idea.Reply
Why is there a reverse the digits step in the cc# algorithm?
Seems like it will work just fine without doing that.Reply
Being able to disconnect when I leave my home office is how I stay happy and productive, and rejecting "app culture" by ditching my smartphone last year has been a big part of that.
Still sometimes I need to make an outgoing call to some customer support line or other such nonsense that only works over "the phone".
Back in the day before cellphones were an option I would sometimes use a payphone for these edge cases, but they basically no longer exist.
I had already canceled my cell phone subscriptions a couple years ago and ported my one remaining cell number to a VoIP provider. This lets me get SMS over email for dumb services I can't avoid like banks that insist on using SMS verification still.
Given that setup had worked well, I decided for rare life edge cases that still require classic phone system voice calls I could also get a VoiP ATA box and route calls to it. This let me setup some "dumb" landline phones at home, the first which logically had to be a payphone, which is now installed and working in my home office as of a few months ago, and I love it.
It is visible in most of my work video calls and people are often skeptical that it really works. Some call it to test are amazed it works fine. It amuses me.Reply
A pay-for-data would be much more useful in my house. We have a 1TB/month limit that we are constantly going over. And the ATT analytics/tools won't let you pinpoint where it is going.Reply
This is very cool, but I'm personally more interested in what he is using for the big digital picture frame next to his phone :)Reply
One last generation might still understand the superman jokes and "I'm going to need an exit" but 100 years from now it's definitely going to need an explainer.Reply
This was a great post with a very sweet ending.
The unexpected screenshot of the LORD intro ascii art was a blast from the past.Reply
I want a payphone to my house straight from a casino in Vegas too!
Just worrying about the "seen some shit" thing: where I used to grow up, the only payphone was mostly used as a toilet by drunk people.Reply
> This basically creates a closed network between two phones. You can configure it so that if you pick up one phone, the other phone rings, and when that phone picks up, you can talk, and vice-versa. So I bought one, drilled a hole to my daughter’s room, and ran another RJ-11 cable to her phone.
Okay, well, now I have something to do with the rotary phone I inherited from a previous job. Time to set up a phone line to my kid's room!
I wonder if something exists to connect any arbitrary number of phones together. Maybe even with distinct phone numbers?
edit: duh, of course it does, PBX. maybe that'll be my summer project.Reply
I love it that he uses the payphone to talk to his daughter's phone in her room... or rather that she uses her phone to call him ;) I also just set up a private phone network in my house, and my daughter can also call my room, from her bedroom. But it spiraled very quickly into something more evolved & more fun.
It all started when I discovered after buying our new house that most rooms were pre-wired with RJ11 outlets, with all the lines going to a central closet. So one day I bought a cheap 8-port PBX for $80 (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B015MIQ12A) and bought a classic rotary phone for my daughter's room, and a regular phone for our room. The PBX needed no configuration whatsoever, it comes with the ports assigned extensions 601, 602, etc, so right away my daughter was elated she could call us from her room by just dialing "601" or whatever. It's important to note we do not have a landline; the PBX's outgoing lines were left unconnected, so it was purely a private phone network. The PBX could also be configured so it auto-dials an extension as soon as the phone is picked up. But I wanted my daughter to learn how to use a rotary dial so I didn't use that feature. As a side note, the "phone line simulator" that the OP uses is basically a minimalist 2-port PBX with no outgoing line.
But I thought, how hard is it to replace the PBX with an Asterisk VOIP system? So I replaced the PBX with a $140 Analog Telphone Adapter (also 8 ports: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07B6TL7N6), I configured the ATA to route calls via SIP to my Linux gateway, on which I installed Asterisk. I wrote a simple Asterisk config defining even shorter extensions so my daughter only has to dial "1" or "2" instead of "601" or "602". Then I set up some extensions that play recorded audio files, like songs, or sweet messages we recorded to each other.
Then, later I thought it might be practical for my daughter to be able to call my cellphone (in case of emergencies or whatnot). So I searched for VOIP providers, found https://voip.ms/ and signed up for an account. I configured Asterisk to place outgoing calls through this provider. And I defined new extensions: 3 rings my cellphone, and 4 rings my wife's cellphone, while the other extensions work just as before (eg. 1 still rings our bedroom.) But I specifically did NOT configure Asterisk to be able to place outgoing calls to arbitrary numbers. So the internal phones are only able to call my predefined extensions.
And again later I thought it might be practical to be able to call her bedroom phone from my cellphone. So I added a DID number (direct inward dialing) to my voip.ms account. Then I configured Asterisk to accept incoming calls from voip.ms, then prompt for an extension, and forward the call accordingly. So when I call the number, I hear "please dial an extension", then I can type 2, and my daughter's phone rings.
In order to avoid spam calls, I made Asterisk check the caller ID and accept calls coming ONLY from my cellphone or from my wife's cellphone. (I'm well aware that caller ID can be spoofed, in fact I have spoofed it myself a few times with my setup as a demonstration to family & friends.) In the 2 months since I bought the DID number I did not see a single call intercepted by my caller id filter. So it looks like I got a pretty "clean" number. I understand that I might not have been that lucky.
And that's basically where I'm at today. We have a mostly private in-home phone network, that can also call our cellphones, and our cellphones only are allowed to call into the house phone system.
Our daughter will call us in the morning when she wakes up to say what she wants for breakfast. When her cousins visit, they chat on the phone from room to room. It's fun!
As someone who knew nothing about Asterisk, I found the official documentation utterly mediocre. The process of configuring it consisted mostly of finding real-world examples, then trying to reverse engineer them by finding what they do from the documentation. But in the end I still got everything to work exactly the way I wanted it.Reply
I'm a Sonic customer and just learned about their Tradewars server! thanks!!Reply
I was just analizing the Luhn algorithm and... the step to reverse the digits doesn't seem to do anything, right? None of the other steps depend on it and in the end you just sum all of the digits together... Is it because the amount of initial digits might not have the same parity and therefore you'd sum a different set of digits depending on whether you reverse or not?Reply
I’m not usually nostalgic, but I love everything about that phone line simulator. The case, the dip switches, the font, the model number DLE-200B. Brings back memories of a time long past.Reply
The ending was very wholesomeReply
Is there an adapter which allows you to connect an analog phone to a digital phone line?
I would like to make use of an ancient analog phone.Reply
My grandfather once built a phone line simulator you could connect up to 8 or 10 phones to and actually dial them by a one-digit number. I think he got the schematics from some old electronics magazine. Definitely one of the coolest „toys“ I ever got as a kid.Reply