Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: The other kind of phone tapping

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  • Tom Barker,

    "There was a phone box in London somewhere where Kiwis in the know could phone home bypassing the coin system and talk free" This is absolutely true. I never used this phonebox myself, but I received plenty of calls from it in NZ. Maybe there was more than one. Any more info?

    Wellington • Since Nov 2007 • 4 posts Report Reply

  • Josh Petyt,

    We called it 'tapping' in Wellington too. I don't think I ever did it but everyone knew about it and we saw older kids doing it.

    Japan • Since Apr 2014 • 44 posts Report Reply

  • Kimberley Simpson,

    My grandfather who used to work for the telephone service told me about this when I was a child - he said I could always call home without worrying about having money to pay for it.

    Auckland, New Zealand • Since Dec 2014 • 5 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Campbell,

    A friend who used to work in telephone exchanges told me that they could tell the noise that a manually dialled call made on the steppers that connected the call were different – it was common practice if you heard a stepper being manually stepped to poke it with a stick so the call was taken down

    The same friend also claimed that the reason we have backwards dials is because some cheap-ass bureaucrat back in the 30s got a bunch of phones cheap back in the 30s because the dials were on backwards, it just wasn’t an issue until NZ got electronic exchanges, and STD to the rest of the world (all our numbers were backwards)

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2605 posts Report Reply

  • Graeme Edgeler, in reply to Alst,

    *137 if I remember rightly.

    I remember 137 being "make my phone ring". I had no idea adding a * would do a call back.

    Wellington, New Zealand • Since Nov 2006 • 3202 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Campbell,

    I used to live in Waitati north of Dunedin in the 80s - we still had a mechanical exchange, and 3 digit numbers - to talk to Dunedin you could dial 2 followed by a Dunedin number, in Dunedin 22 got you to the Waitati exchange, 222222222222... quickly used up all the trunk lines between the two exchanges.

    In (I think) 1982 the geriatric (alzheimers) hospital at the end of the street closed, one day we woke up to find soldiers marching up and down our street, and blocking off traffic at the end, the English SAS were in town for a terrorist training exercise (the Commonwealth Games were about to be held across the ditch), there were apparently 'terrorists' holding 'hostages' in the hospital at the end of the street ....... it was a full out exercise, they practised everything, they went into the local exchange and tapped all our phones .... how did we know? they weren't very good at it, we could hear them talking

    some things never change I guess

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2605 posts Report Reply

  • Alfie, in reply to Ianmac,

    There was a phone box in London somewhere where Kiwis in the know could phone home bypassing the coin system and talk free. A queue would form late at night for the privileged few.

    There were actually dozens if not hundreds of phone boxes like this. When I lived in London in the 80s I had a kiwi mate who used this trick. You still had to put coins in the phone, but he'd insert a thin strip of metal with a slightly bent base first. He made the call, then once it was over, withdrew the metal strip and got all of his coins back. Because British Telecom were slowly "fixing" their phones to prevent this scam, my friend was working his way around the telephone boxes of South London until he found one which worked.

    While I'm reminiscing about the 80s, we lived for a year or so in a big house in Earls Court which had a coin-operated telephone in the hallway. One day the phone inexplicably started to provide free calls, anywhere in the world. Our flatmates were a mix of kiwis, French and Canadians so that little phone ran hot for several weeks until the landlord finally clicked.

    Ahh... those were the (pre-Skype) days.

    Dunedin • Since May 2014 • 1385 posts Report Reply

  • Graham Dunster, in reply to Tom Barker,

    There were loads of callboxes like that. When I lived in a flat in Tooting Bec in the mid 80s there was a payphone in the hallway for residents that allowed international calls to be made without putting in any money. Worked well until the landlord, who effectively sublet the 'phone from BT, received his three monthly bill (always quarterly in the UK) and freaked (at the phreaking) at the size of his bill, which bore no relation to the coins in the unit. We moved out soon after.
    Not many people seem to have noticed but if you look at an old NZ rotary unit the numbers are backwards compared to (almost) everywhere else. Not quite water down the plughole, but...

    Auckland • Since Nov 2009 • 184 posts Report Reply

  • WaterDragon,

    Clearly I had a deprived childhood/young adulthood.

    Behind you • Since Jul 2011 • 74 posts Report Reply

  • paddy free,

    I can confirm that "tapping" was still working as late as 1986 or '87. My first flat in Mt Eden had a phone box outside my bedroom window and I'd go to sleep to the sound of furious tapping.

    In other old-fogey ruminations: Imagine The Kids Today reading the opening sentence of William Gibson's cyberpunk classic Neuromancer.

    "The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel."

    The Kids read that and think "the sky was brilliant, vivid, unbroken blue."

    piha • Since Dec 2006 • 10 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Campbell,

    Living in the US kiwi visitors would often turn up with a bag of 1c pieces ... they were the same size and weight as US dimes but 1/20 the value ...... one visitor almost got arrested at the local BART station ("oops, I must have put the wrong coin in, I just arrived in your wonderful country yesterday") .... this is why parking meters used to have those little windows in them

    I also remember Captain Crunch getting arrested for forging BART tickets, he'd simply recorded the mag stripe of a high value ticket on a cassette tape recorder and played it back a bunch of times .....

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2605 posts Report Reply

  • Patrick Xavier, in reply to Graham Dunster,

    There was also some sort of mechanical phonecard purchasable at newsagents, which had a ridged strip down its middle. Gears inside the payphone would click across (and flatten) the ridges until the card's value had been consumed. Calls to NZ from London sounded like a racetrack as the card was dragged at speed into the phone's maw. Local calls were at a much more pedestrian pace. There was some sort of con with those cards too, but I cannot know recall what it was - deepening the ridges, so the gears couldn't climb over them, something like that?

    Since Nov 2006 • 49 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz, in reply to Graham Dunster,

    I have found the spec on how the old BT payphone system worked: http://www.britishtelephones.com/bcc700.htm

    (This information would originally have been protected by the Official Secrets Act - maybe it still is).

    I imagine the “free phone NZ” service occurred when a payphone was mistakenly provisioned on a normal exchange line rather than one with coinbox support.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • Howard Edwards, in reply to Graeme Edgeler,

    My wife and I use 137 to call one another when one of us is working in the barn and the other is back in the house.

    Speaking of phones, I get annoyed when some expert pops up on one of the newspaper tech pages and raves about how the landline is dying and we will all be using nothing but cellphones soon. We live in Coatesville which is about 10 minutes drive from the Albany Mega centre (i.e. hardly the wop-wops) and our cellphone coverage is abysmal - some days it is impossible to call out or call in. Vodafone's response is to try and force us to change ISPs as their solution is to make us pay for some proprietary Internet box (VOIP perhaps?) that only works with their ISP service.

    Albany • Since Apr 2013 • 66 posts Report Reply

  • John Farrell,

    I worked in telephone exchanges in the 1970s, and if I came across someone tapping a call (you could tell by the uneven chain of pulses) I would plug the buttinski into the switch and loop it. This stopped the pulses going to the next switch, and even allowed you to talk to the tappers.

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 485 posts Report Reply

  • Alfie, in reply to Howard Edwards,

    We live in Coatesville which is about 10 minutes drive from the Albany Mega centre (i.e. hardly the wop-wops) and our cellphone coverage is abysmal - some days it is impossible to call out or call in.

    Ditto here in Blueskin Bay. While we're only 25km from the centre of Dunedin, Vodafone cell coverage is all but non-existent. VF did offer to sell us an expensive signal enhancer which uses VOIP, but to make it work, your cellphone needed to be plugged into the box -- just the same as a landline. We ditched our cellphones and rely on the landline instead.

    Likewise, Chorus tells us that we're never going to be upgraded to UFB. Hell, we can't even get ADSL2 out this way. Despite Dunedin "winning" the Gigatown thing, it's still copper all the way for us poor country folks.

    Dunedin • Since May 2014 • 1385 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Campbell,

    These days I actually make home telephone (VOIP) exchanges for a living, most of our customers don't realise that' what they have, 10 years ago I put one in at home (on the household web/mail server) and gave everyone a 1 digit extension, if you dial in you have to type the number of the person you want to talk to.

    It's great because that stops 99% of telemarketers, we get one every other year or so.

    It also solves the "what phone is ringing?" problem, (we kept our US number when we moved back to NZ) since the exchange answers NZ and US calls. I have a secret code that lets me bridge from one line to the other if I'm travelling

    Before the kids went off to Uni I wired up their extensions to first ring in their bedrooms then to ring on the common areas of the house, and I gave everyone unique ring cadences - at one point my daughter was getting 90% of the phone calls, she had the short cadence so we could just tell her to answer the phone - everyone got personal voicemail too

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2605 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    There is a part of me that kinda wants to imagine these are deliberate holes in the systems - used to identify those people with more creativity and more ability to think outside the rules. Then those people can be offered jobs building FTL spaceships and teleportation devices ...

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4450 posts Report Reply

  • Mike O'Connell, in reply to Alfie,

    I worked for a team of people in the late 80s who became privatised after the break up of of (Red Ken's (Livingstone) Greater London Council. While clearing out equipment from their former HQ, County Hall (on the Thames), had the privilege of roaming the vast spaces and corridors of CH, which still had oodles of dial phones connected - so made the most of it through the hot summer of '89.

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 379 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz,

    We live in Coatesville ... and our cellphone coverage is abysmal

    <tinfoil hat>
    Two reasons for that:
    - a large German bloke hogging all the bandwidth in that area for his gaming
    - the spooks using the remaining bandwidth to bug said large German bloke
    </tinfoil hat>

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • FletcherB,

    The same friend also claimed that the reason we have backwards dials is because some cheap-ass bureaucrat back in the 30s got a bunch of phones cheap back in the 30s because the dials were on backwards, it just wasn’t an issue until NZ got electronic exchanges, and STD to the rest of the world (all our numbers were backwards)

    Hmm, I heard a contradictory rumour, that a cheap-ass bureaucrat was indeed responsible... but for different reasons... because they didn't want to pay a royalty or license fee to the inventor (BT?), so they copied the basic idea but changed it enough to be a new invention...

    Also, in the '80s when everyone was handing their old grey dial phone back to the Post Office (or maybe it had just become Telecom?) in exchange for the ubiquitous beige PERT phones... the old dial-phones were all cleaned, and refurbished back into perfect working order.... before being put en-mass into dumpsters for disposal!!!

    West Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 887 posts Report Reply

  • Josh Petyt, in reply to Graham Dunster,

    Cool. I lived in Tooting Bec around 2000.

    Japan • Since Apr 2014 • 44 posts Report Reply

  • Julian Melville,

    I was at the tail end of the tapping thing, I knew how to do it and had tried it a couple of times to see how it worked, but never used it "for real". However... does anybody remember the old Telecom Phonecards with a mag stripe? Apparently you could spray the back with a few coats of hairspray, enough that the phone could read the credit off the card but couldn't write the new value back again. Free calls!

    Auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 199 posts Report Reply

  • Gregor Ronald, in reply to Alst,

    Yep, used by Telecom (sorry, Post Office) techs to check if a line's working properly. 136 did something as well, can't remember what though.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 102 posts Report Reply

  • Gregor Ronald, in reply to Howard Edwards,

    After the big Chch quake, our POTS landline with analog handset was our lifeline. Cell tower batteries died after 12 hours, phones died in a day or so, but the old school phone plugged on...

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 102 posts Report Reply

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