Personal Interest & Recollection of
North Pittsburgh Telephone Company
Part 2

 

A personal prospective and recollection of past experiences with North Pittsburgh Telephone Company in several ways that were not quite 100% legal.

Getting “inside” the system to see what I could do with “the system”,
and getting caught in the process

NOTICE: The following are stories of past experiences. DO NOT attempt any of these under ANY circumstances. DO NOT use the following to make illegal long distance telephone calls for ANY reason. Telephone World does NOT condone any illegal activity. You have been warned.

First Time... you would have thought I would have learned

I didn't even know that the term "phreaking" even existed in the fall of 1982. However, I managed to become a "phreaker" of sorts just by playing around with the phone, without much knowledge of what was going on.

Starting in May 1982, North Pittsburgh outsourced their operator services to AT&T Long Lines in Youngstown, OH. Youngstown had a TSPS (Traffic Services Position Station) system, which was (at that time) the most technologically advanced operator services platform. TSPS allowed for customer-dialed operator assisted calls and automated calling card and coin-based long distance calls.

North Pittsburgh’s implementation was rather straightforward. Calls went to the Youngstown TSPS with Automated Number Identification (ANI). While this is normally a good thing, for me this was and bad since it traced where the calls originated from.

About this time, I figured out that you could make “third party” calls simply by giving the operator a phone number where you wanted calls to be billed to. I also discovered this new service called “976” numbers where you could call (for a fee) for all sorts of information (no, this was before those sex lines were around).

So I said, what the heck and called a bunch of long distance calls and billed them to someone I didn’t like in school. The operators (surprisingly) never did any sort of verification. I figured when the bills would have come, the person’s parents would have either blamed it on the kids (hopefully the person in question) or someone else. Unfortunately they called NPT who traced it right back to my parent’s number, and of course to me. NPT put all the charges on my parent’s bill and I wound up paying them back. Not exactly fun. Did I learn my lesson? Not exactly…

Second Time Around...They're following me.

Not long after we moved to Gibsonia, NPT called our house asking if we would like to make our long distance bills go down. So of course, my parents jumped on it since my mom made quite a few lengthy calls to her sisters in any given month. This required us calling a local phone number, entering a PIN code, and then the area code and phone number of the person you wanted to reach. Of course, I learned how to do it as well. The system migrated in the mid-1980s to the new phone system (Northern Telecom DMS-100) and a slight phone number change.

But the biggest part was that there were two distinct loopholes (flaws) in the system. One was that you could call this “magic number” from pay phones (NPT owned ones) for free. The second was that it allowed you to dial (you guessed it) 976 numbers. Around this time, local radio stations were advertising these new “chat” or “gabb” lines, as well as self-dating services (basically a form of voice mail). This all occurred around the summer of 1987 or so.

The first time I figured this out, I did this from home. I just played around to see if I could find a working PIN code. That was fairly easily done (lets say it was REAL easy to find it!). My downfall was that I gave my phone number on one of those calls – and of course the circuit was being monitored. Uh oh.. busted again! They didn’t make me pay, but if they had, it would have been a REALLY big bill!

So next time around, I used the pay phone trick to find working codes AND to get back on those services. One would have thought they would have patched the “976” loophole, but they didn’t!

At this time, I had a “home computer” where I had figured out how to create pseudo-random codes. Real simple to create these codes and them write them down. Simple enough, go to a pay phone, dial the 7-digit number, and try PIN codes to find a working one. Usually didn’t take me too long to find one and then use it.

All fine and dandy except that NPT wanted to catch me in action. My best guess was that I was being followed, or they could send a police officer (marked and unmarked) to a pay phone in a matter of a couple of minutes when the “magic number” was dialed. Only one time an officer approached me, but by that time I had left the pay phone I had been using. But soon after that, I quit doing that sort of thing. Figured the next step was getting arrested. So that was the end of that.

Last Time Around...OK, I give up!

The last time I really did any sort of “phreaking” was using AT&T calling card numbers. It was interesting how I obtained them. NPT (at that time) operated an IMTS (Improved Mobile Telephone System, the predecessor to the modern cell phone system) transmitter. It was only a mile away from where I lived. The signal was only 100 watts, but it was so strong where I lived that it bled onto a couple of cable TV channels! At a flea market, I bought a radio that could receive that frequency and used to listen to it when I was at home, and even devised a way to record these phone calls (full duplex, and it was all in the clear) when I was not at home. So I would listen to “roamers” who would use the system on occasion (I would assume people that were traveling the nearby Pennsylvania Turnpike) would use their AT&T calling cards to make calls. Well, as you would probably guess, I would write these down and save them. If I recall correctly, this was around the summer of 1990 or so.

Now this time, since I knew that making calls from home was bad, I made all these calls from pay phones (most of which were NOT in NPT territory). I would call pretty much everyplace and everything (this time EXCEPT those “976” numbers) including friends. Well, that last part was the downfall. One of the calling cards I was using was issued by GTE for use on the AT&T network. They called the people I had called, and said they would make them pay unless they told GTE who had called them using the calling card. Well, they squealed and guess who got stuck with a $300 bill! It was sent CERTIFIED mail as well. Not exactly what my parents or I had in mind.

Post Mortem

So this goes to show you that if you do something you’re not supposed to, you’ll probably get caught. As you can see, it took a while to get it in my thick head that I needed to stop doing so. After the last time I got caught, I finally realized that I had to clean up my act. I was going to go away to college and needed to straighten up or I might not be able to get a degree and get a good job.

Now that I’m an adult, have a family and a good paying job, I would NEVER do any of this again. There is just too much at stake in my life to really screw it up and do something like any of the above ever again.

And anyhow, in 2006, there are many MANY options that make long distance calls either really cheap or even “free”. For example:

Most modern post-pay cellular phone plans have unlimited night & weekend plans. Even during daylight hours during the week, most plans offer a large number of minutes. Call anywhere in the US or Canada for one low monthly rate. 

For those who either can’t afford cell phones or those who want to be anonymous, there are the pre-paid cell phones. 

Pre-paid calling cards (which only came out in the early 1990s) now offer ultra-cheap long distance as cheap as 3 cents a minute.

And finally, Voice over IP (VoIP) providers such as Vonage, offers unlimited calling to the US and Canada for a fixed fee that’s not too terribly expensive.

I know… you are probably thinking if I combined any of my above endeavors with these modern ways of making long distance calls that I might have not gotten caught so easily. I have wondered about that, but at the same time, I probably would have gone “legit” if these other options were available some 15 to 20 or 25 years ago. The price is right and that was what mattered to me the most.

Next Page – Technical History of North Pittsburgh, Part 1


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