Killer Phreaks


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His name was something like Rosencrantz or Rosenstein, and he ran a warez board out of California called, I think, the Wasteland. We swapped cracked software to post on our respective BBSes. My board, running on an Atari 800 using Atari Basic shareware that I’d tricked-out in Mountain Dew-fueled programming all-nighters, was part of a small collective that traded whatever stolen code we could find. Even the Mountain Dew was hot, booty from raids on a nearby Coca-Cola distribution hub.


Truth is, Rosencrantz or Rosenstein cracked and posted most of the warez, and gave me permission to download and post them in New Jersey. Distance mattered in those days. To access the programs sitting on my 5.25-inch floppy drive, one needed to dial directly into the 300-baud modem on my desk. When the latest cracked videogame took two hours to transfer and there was no such thing as "free long distance," every minute out of your local area meant money on Mom and Dad’s phone bill.


I got my hands on the newer warez because I had an advantage over my peers: My after-school job was telemarketing. Those were the early days of competitive telephony, when Sprint and others were fighting for supremacy in the newly deregulated market. They couldn’t yet switch over the billing, so customers called a special number, entered an access code and dialed. My employers were early adopters, but didn’t grasp the stupidity of posting the access numbers and PINs on the corkboard behind the secretary.


After a few months of heavy abuse, the beige-suit bosses got wise and hid the codes. Addicted to the freedom, I was forced to find another method (which, incidentally, still works). When dialing out of North Jersey, I’d ask the operator to bill a third party, knowing that they secured permission only when the call originated from a payphone. I kept the Yellow Pages on my desk; when I needed to make an expensive, overnight download, I charged the call to a local business. I worked my way through the car dealerships and supermarkets under the correct assumption that their bookkeepers didn’t pay attention to the individual items on the monthly phone bill.


(The real trick, actually, was finding a business that used a bank of numbers—887-0500 through 887-0510, for example—and billing to the highest ones. The wise thief never billed to the public face since that number probably hosted more incoming than outgoing calls.)


One day, without warning, Rosencratzenstein’s BBS disappeared. Little was known until I came across an item in the Weekly World News. There was my friend—a California computer whizkid who’d shot (and killed) an older man who lived in his neighborhood. There were thinly veiled suggestions of a relationship between the two, and mention that the homicidal hacker ran a BBS, "or bulletin board system." No doubt, the article referenced War Games.


I was shocked to learn that a Weekly World News item was, at the very least, based on fact. So why not accept bat boy, the devil’s skull and Bigfoot in Staten Island? More importantly, I saw how news coming from as far away as California could connect to me. I remember sitting in my bedroom and memorizing every word of that article—a half page on the right-hand side of the paper. I typed it up and posted it on my fellow phreakers’ boards.


For the life of me, I can’t remember the outcome of the story. I may not have ever known.


After a few wiretapping scares during the height of the mid-80s hacker busts, I gave up the BBS and chose to pursue girls over software. My trusty Atari still sits in a box in my parents’ garage, perhaps with that article clipped to a stack of dot-matrix-printed war-dial results. One of these days, I always say, I’ll fetch it and boot up a game of the original Castle Wolfenstein. Assuming the floppy hasn’t turned to dust.


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