5 Criminals Who Pulled Off Major Crimes With Only a Phone
When we think of criminals, we tend to think of two types: The street-level thug committing his crimes with a gun or a fist, and the upper-level management, dictating orders to the thugs below. But there's a third type: The guys who picks up the phone and decide that crime sounds like a fun thing to do today. And sometimes -- not often, but sometimes -- they succeed in astounding ways.
Interstate Bank Robbery
The prize for Greatest Telephonic Bank Robber of All Time goes to the as-yet-unknown super-criminal who managed to rob $58,000 from four banks across four state lines back in 1973, using nothing more than a series of phone calls.
Wait, why didn't they catch him? There are giant arrows pointing right to him!
The robber kicked off his long distance spree in Nashville, then moved on to Springfield, Illinois, Topeka, Kansas, and St. Paul, Minnesota. He was about to scoop up $16,280 in Indianapolis, but the feds finally caught on by that point and had a trap set up for him ... which he obviously slipped.
You may have noticed that these telephonic bank hits all took place in state capitals. Coincidence?
Or incredibly boring world tour?
Of course not.
How He Did It:
In each case, the mystery caller (whom we will refer to as the Capitalist from now on) would phone up local banks, posing as an aide to the state treasurer. He then requested that thousands of dollars in cash be sent to the treasurer's office, for "payroll" purposes. Miraculously, that's all it took: Mentioning generic terms like "payroll" and "treasury" sent whole banks scurrying to ship huge amounts of money as soon as humanly possible. The Capitalist even arranged for Brink's armored trucks to transport the funds, and, in one case, even a state trooper to escort the money. And again: There were no accomplices, no brilliant hacks and no dynamited vaults -- he did all of this alone, and entirely by telephone.
After all, they don't give just anybody telephones.
After the money was safely en route, the Capitalist would immediately call the treasurer's office, claiming to be an official from the bank -- which had made an error -- and ask that the money be rerouted to a different state office. Step 3, as is so often the case with unsolved crimes, is still a series of question marks to this day, but Step 4 was always "profit": He somehow got his hands on the money, every time, and absconded with it scot-free. Just as mysteriously, the Capitalist somehow knew about the feds' trap in Indianapolis and never showed to pick up the money there. Afterward, he ceased all activities and simply walked -- or possibly flew on a blimp shaped like the capitol building -- away, never to be identified or apprehended, with more than $58,000 (close to $300,000 when adjusted for 2011 dollars) in his pockets -- or possibly in giant green bags with dollar signs on them.
"We didn't get much of a bonus that quarter."
Long before people were hacking computers, they were hacking phone lines. They called themselves phreakers, because everybody knows nothing freaks out the squares like digraph substitution. Back in the 1960s and '70s, phreakers would game the telephone systems for stuff like free long distance and conference calls. Since old phone systems worked entirely off of tones, some of the very best phreakers could hack simply by whistling into a handset. And because life is awesome and apparently comic book logic actually applies sometimes, some of the early masters were blind: Josef Carl "Joybubbles" Engressia found that, because he'd been deprived of his sight, his heightened sense of pitch allowed him to whistle-hack phone lines effortlessly like some sort of criminal/songbird hybrid.
Watch and freak right out.
Cut to 2005: 15-year-old Matthew "Lil Hacker" Weigman is considered by the modern phreak community to be one of the best young phone hackers out there. But before you get cute, old-timey images in your head of whistling rogues hacking free phone calls to their sweethearts, you should know that modern phreaking is more about delusional sociopathy than inventively exploiting archaic technology.
Case in point: When Richard Gasper, the father of a phone phreak groupie -- yes, there is such a thing, and no, that sadness you're feeling inside won't ever go away -- denied Weigman's 3 a.m. request to have phone sex with Gasper's groupie daughter, Wiegman did precisely what you'd expect: He hung up.
And then sent in a SWAT team to exact his revenge.
They all agreed it would be totally hilarious.
How He Did It:
First, Lil Hacker made sure the 911 call was caller ID spoofed, meaning that it showed up as actually originating from within the Gasper residence.
Aaand that's the end of our high-tech hacking segment: It was just simple impersonation and persuasion that convinced the 911 operator that Weigman was an armed gunman holding the Gasper family hostage. You can hear the actual recording here, and you have to admit, it was a pretty damn convincing performance for a 15-year-old kid. Perhaps blindness has lent Weigman a heightened sense of behaving like a psychopath. At any rate, when Gasper stepped out into the police floodlights, explaining for the second time that he'd simply been pranked by a spurned and horny teenage boy, SWAT scoffed at him -- "Ha! Can you believe he tried that old excuse?" -- and slapped on the handcuffs.
"And you say Mr. Gasper is a 'complete dickhead'? We'll inform the negotiator."
Lil Hacker was eventually caught, but not by an elite squad of technological anti-heroes in a battle of code: He didn't like having an investigator following him, so he showed up on said investigator's doorstep with his big brother and threatened to beat him up.
Forget your shining towers of light and zipping light cycle battles: That's what hacking really looks like, ladies and gentlemen.
Less of this and more hilarious petty scheming.
In the annals of prank call history, the thugs that operate at Pranknet have an entire mean-spirited wing devoted to their exploits. Their pranks transformed the phone prank victim from "person mildly annoyed at having Prince Albert in a can" to "confused elderly man smashing his way through a motel wall in order to free a non-existent midget."
How They Did It:
The Pranknetters would dial straight into the room of a random hotel guest, posing as employees of hotel security trying to contain an emergency situation, such as a deadly gas leak or venomous spider infestation. The callers then convinced the victims to remedy the situation with a series of increasingly ridiculous tasks, such as busting out all the windows, setting off the fire sprinklers, shattering the bathroom mirror with the tank lid of the toilet or, in one case, persuading a confused motel clerk to have a man back his semi truck into the front door of the hotel.
Thus proving two things: One, it's generally ill-advised to assume that phones are magic truth-serum machines incapable of conveying lies, and two, you shouldn't get high in motels; you'll probably end up burning down the bed to prevent the spread of the dreaded Duvet Plague.
There have been several more equally vile and outrageous mutations of the standard hotel prank, resulting in such things as:
A hotel guest being tricked into ingesting his own fecal matter.
"Do I just like, saute it or what?"
A man in a Motel 6 being coaxed into battering his way through his hotel room's wall in order to liberate a midget he'd been told was trapped in the next room.
A front desk clerk being duped into drinking a cup of urine she'd been told was a free sample of apple cider, brought down to the lobby by a guest who had in turn been cajoled into submitting a urine sample to the clerk as a safety measure in light of a "Hepatitis C outbreak in the hotel."
"... warm cider?"
But there's good news: The leader of Pranknet, a somewhat elusive figure who goes by the handle "Dex," isn't some brilliant, faceless mastermind. In 2009, The Smoking Gun tracked him down quite easily, revealing the "overlord" behind these pranks to be Tariq Malik, a 25-year-old living with his mother in Windsor, Ontario.
We're starting to think that Hollywood's image of the slick, genius hacker wunderkind skateboarding through the Internet might be just a little bit exaggerated.
Yeah, we can see Sandra Bullock hooking up with that guy.
Epic Business Fraud
If we told you someone managed to con themselves up a ton of money over the phone, what amount would you guess we were talking about? A quarter of a million dollars? 2 million? 10? Not even close: Over the course of about a decade, Elliott Keith Offen managed to swindle businesses out of a staggering 30 million dollars.
That's golden phone money.
How He Did It:
Again, if you're expecting some elaborate, ingenious ploy involving a dozen skilled switchboard jockeys and one inexplicable gymnast, prepare for disappointment: It all comes down to smooth talk, giant balls and a poor sense of morality. Offen deployed "dozens of voices and personalities" to trick people into believing he was an upstanding businessman by calling and pretending to make a payment for an order he'd never placed. When the accounting department became embarrassed that they had no record of the order, Offen would "magnanimously" offer to make the payment in advance, anyway, trusting that the goods would show up eventually.
Because he's such a good guy, you see, and who cares about frivolities such as "money" and "services" when the joy of commerce is its own reward?
"Don't worry, friends, you'll get it right the second time!"
The businesses would of course refuse to accept the payment for nonexistent goods, but would at the same time find themselves overcome with unwarranted admiration for Offen's "honesty." When he called back later to place more orders, the businesses would (hopefully) remember Offen, and many would then ship orders to him on virtue of his "good credit" alone: Everything from shoes and pocketbooks to light bulbs and leotards.
So what did he do with such a random assortment of stolen goods? Start a shitty general store? Stage an epic rendition of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? Just dress up like a pretty, pretty princess and change a fuckton of light bulbs in his neighborhood?
Sadly, none of the above.
Having conned his way into piles of goods, Offen would merely warehouse them for a time, then resell them on the black market. This worked for a staggeringly long time, however -- hence the 30 million dollar payday. But in the end, authorities caught up with Offen, who at least went down doing what he loved: Standing in a phone booth, attempting to swindle General Electric out of $100,000 worth of light bulbs.
Somehow, drugs have more flair.
Ingredients we imagine you'd need for a prison escape via telephone:
1. Shrink ray
2. Wire cutters
4. Tiny submarine capable of traversing telephone lines (we assume them to be filled with liquid, for reasons unclear even to us)
5. A direct line to the A-Team or its Central American equivalent.
Ingredients you actually need for a prison escape via telephone:
1. Cell block payphone
2. Girlfriend with access to a fax machine (who will double as downfall)
3. 400 pounds of fat that keeps you from just tunneling the hell out
4. Giant prison-balls
Not that kind.
How He Did It:
Carlton Rich used his one phone call to ring up his girlfriend, who then called the very same jail where Rich was incarcerated, with Rich himself on three-way. Rich pulled a killer impersonation of a prison official in New Mexico (which we imagine sounding like Boss Hogg) and granted himself bail. Then a fax showed up in the jail's main office from the New Mexico authorities at just that moment, confirming that Rich was, indeed, set to be released.
"According to the screeching robot in our break room, you're free to go."
But of course, Rich had orchestrated the fax as well: It was sent by his girlfriend -- whom we should note sounds like a hell of a multitasking receptionist, if this whole "accomplice to fraud" thing ever falls through -- from a copy store not far from the prison's perimeter walls. And incredibly, it worked: The jailer's keys came jangling down the hall, the cell door slid open, the caged man stepped out into the dazzling glare of freedom ...
And then ran straight to his girlfriend's house, in the very same city, and settled in for a few days of hot, stupid freedom sex.
And that's exactly where police found him, three full days after his escape: Still snuggled warmly in bed with his phone pal, presumably secure in the belief that the rule of "no-take-backsies" applies to prison terms. For their part, the police and prison officials were pretty embarrassed by Rich's push-button breakout, with head investigator Amadeo Ortiz explaining the escape by stating the obvious:
"The man is very, very slick."
"No, literally, he just got out of prison and spent three straight days boning. Don't touch him."
Jason Edward Harrington is a writer based in Chicago. To check out more of him, visit his blog or follow him on Twitter.
For more baffling bad guys, check out The 7 Most Baffling Criminal Defenses (That Sort of Worked) and The 7 Most Retarded Criminal Excuses of All Time.