Kevin Mitnick: The making of a Hacker — Excerpt

Kevin Mitnick: The making of a Hacker — Excerpt

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My instinct for finding a way around barriers and safeguards began very early. At about age one and a half, I found a way to climb out of my crib, crawl to the child gate at the door, and figure out how to open it. For my mom, it was the first wake-up call for all that was to follow.

I grew up as an only child. After my dad left when I was three, my mother, Shelly, and I lived in nice, medium-priced apartments in safe areas of the San Fernando Valley, just over the hill from the city of Los Angeles. My mom supported us with waitressing jobs in one or another of the many delis strung out along Ventura Boulevard, which runs east–west for the length of the valley. My father lived out of state and, though he cared about me, was for the most part only occasionally involved in my life growing up until he moved to Los Angeles when I was thirteen years old.

Mom and I moved so often I didn’t have the same chance to make friends as other kids did. I spent my childhood largely involved in solitary, mostly sedentary pursuits. When I was at school, the teachers told my mom that I was in the top 1 percentile in mathematics and spelling, years ahead of my grade. But because I was hyperactive as a child, it was hard for me to sit still.

Mom had three husbands and several boyfriends when I was growing up. One abused me, another—who worked in law enforcement—molested me. Unlike some other moms I’ve read about, she never turned a blind eye. From the moment she found out I was being mistreated—or even spoken to in a rough way—the guy was out the door for good. Not that I’m looking for excuses, but I wonder if those abusive men had anything to do with my growing up to a life of defying authority figures.

Summers were the best, especially if my mom was working a split shift and had time off in the middle of the day. I loved it when she’d take me swimming at the amazing Santa Monica Beach. She’d lie on the sand, sunning and relaxing, watching me splashing in the waves, getting knocked down and coming up laughing, practicing the swimming I had learned at a YMCA camp that I went to for several summers (and always hated except when they took us all to the beach).

I was good at sports as a kid, happy playing Little League, serious enough to enjoy spending spare time at the batting cage. But the passion that set me on a life course began when I was ten. A neighbor who lived in the apartment across from us had a daughter about my age whom I guess I developed a crush on, which she reciprocated by actually dancing naked in front of me. At that age, I was more interested in what her father brought into my life: magic.

He was an accomplished magician whose card tricks, coin tricks, and larger effects fascinated me. But there was something else, something more important: I saw how his audiences of one, three, or a roomful found delight in being deceived. Though this was never a conscious thought, the notion that people enjoyed being taken in was a stunning revelation that influenced the course of my life.

A magic store just a short bike ride away became my spare-time hangout. Magic was my original doorway into the art of deceiving people.

Sometimes instead of riding my bike I’d hop on the bus. One day a couple of years later a bus driver named Bob Arkow noticed I was wearing a T-shirt that said, “CBers Do It on the Air.” He told me he’d just found a Motorola handheld that was a police radio. I thought maybe he could listen in on the police frequencies, which would be very cool. It turned out he was pulling my leg about that, but Bob was an avid ham radio operator, and his enthusiasm for the hobby sparked my interest. He showed me a way to make free telephone calls over the radio, through a service called an “auto patch” provided by some of the hams. Free phone calls! That impressed me no end. I was hooked.

After several weeks of sitting in a nighttime classroom, I had learned enough about radio circuits and ham radio regulations to pass the written exam, and mastered enough Morse code to meet that qualification as well. Soon the mailman brought an envelope from the Federal Communications Commission with my ham radio license, something not many kids in their early teens have ever had. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

Fooling people with magic was cool. But learning how the phone system worked was fascinating. I wanted to learn everything about how the phone company worked. I wanted to master its inner workings. I had been getting very good grades all the way through elementary school and in junior high, but around eighth or ninth grade I started cutting classes to hang out at Henry Radio, a ham radio store in West Los Angeles, reading books for hours on radio theory. To me, it was as good as a visit to Disneyland. Ham radio also offered some opportunities for helping out in the community. For a time I worked as a volunteer on occasional weekends to provide communications support for the local Red Cross chapter. One summer I spent a week doing the same for the Special Olympics.

Riding the buses was for me a bit like being on holiday—taking in the sights of the city, even when they were familiar ones. This was Southern California, so the weather was almost always near perfect, except when the smog settled in—much worse in those times than today. The bus cost twenty-five cents, plus ten cents for a transfer. On summer vacation when my mom was at work, I’d sometimes ride the bus all day. By the time I was twelve, my mind was already running in devious channels. One day it occurred to me, If I could punch my own transfers, the bus rides wouldn’t cost anything.

My father and my uncles were all salesmen with the gift of gab. I guess I share the gene that gave me my ability from very early on to talk people into doing things for me. I walked to the front of the bus and sat down in the closest seat to the driver. When he stopped at a light, I said, “I’m working on a school project and I need to punch interesting shapes on pieces of cardboard. The punch you use on the transfers would be great for me. Is there someplace I can buy one?”

I didn’t think he’d believe it because it sounded so stupid. I guess the idea never crossed his mind that a kid my age might be manipulating him. He told me the name of the store, and I called and found out they sold the punches for $15. When you were twelve, could you come up with a reasonable excuse you might have given your mother about why you needed $15? I had no trouble. The very next day I was in the store buying a punch. But that was only Step One. How was I going to get books of blank transfers?

Well, where did the buses get washed? I walked over to the nearby bus depot, spotted a big Dumpster in the area where the buses were cleaned, pulled myself up, and looked in.

Jackpot!

I stuffed my pockets with partially used books of transfers—my first of what would be many, many acts of what came to be called “Dumpster-diving.”

My memory has always been way better than average and I managed to memorize the bus schedules for most of the San Fernando Valley. I started to roam by bus everywhere the bus system covered—Los Angeles County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County. I enjoyed seeing all those different places, taking in the world around me.

In my travels, I made friends with a kid named Richard Williams, who was doing the same thing, but with two pretty major differences. For one thing, his free-roaming travels were legal because, as the son of a bus driver, Richard rode for free. The second aspect that separated us (initially, anyway) was our difference in weight: Richard was obese and wanted to stop at Jack in the Box for a Super Taco five or six times a day. Almost at once I adopted his eating habits and began growing around the middle.

It wasn’t long before a pigtailed blond girl on the school bus told me, “You’re kinda cute, but you’re fat. You oughta lose some weight.”

Did I take her sharp but unquestionably constructive advice to heart? Nope.

Did I get into trouble for Dumpster-diving for those bus transfers and riding for free? Again, no. My mom thought it was clever, my dad thought it showed initiative, and bus drivers who knew I was punching my own transfers thought it was a big laugh. It was as though everyone who knew what I was up to was giving me attaboys.

In fact, I didn’t need other people’s praise for my misdeeds to lead me into more trouble. Who would have thought that a little shopping trip could provide a lesson that would set my life on a new course… in an unfortunate direction?

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Even many Jewish families that aren’t very religious want their sons to have a bar mitzvah, and I fell into that category. This includes standing up in front of the congregation and reading a passage from the Torah scroll—in Hebrew. Of course, Hebrew uses a completely different alphabet, with imageimageimage, and the like, so mastering the Torah portion can take months of study.

I was signed up at a Hebrew school in Sherman Oaks but got booted for goofing off. Mom found a cantor to teach me one-on-one, so I couldn’t get away with reading a technology book under the table. I managed to learn enough to get through the service and read my Torah passage aloud to the congregation with no more than the usual amount of stumbling, and without embarrassing myself.

Afterward my parents chided me for mimicking the accent and gestures of the rabbi. But it was subconscious. I’d later learn that this is a very effective technique because people are attracted to others who are like themselves. So at a very early age, all unaware, I was already practicing what would come to be called “social engineering”—the casual or calculated manipulation of people to influence them to do things they would not ordinarily do. And convincing them without raising the least hint of suspicion.

The typical shower of presents from relatives and from people who attended the reception after the bar mitzvah at the Odyssey Restaurant left me with gifts that included a number of U.S. Treasury bonds that came to a surprisingly handsome sum.

I was an avid reader, with a particular focus that led me to a place called the Survival Bookstore in North Hollywood. It was small and in a seedy neighborhood and was run by a middle-aged, friendly blond lady who said I could call her by her first name. The place was like finding a pirate’s treasure chest. My idols in those days were Bruce Lee, Houdini, and Jim Rockford, the cool private detective played by James Garner in The Rockford Files, who could pick locks, manipulate people, and assume a false identity in a matter of moments. I wanted to be able to do all the neat things Rockford could.

The Survival Bookstore carried books describing how to do all those nifty Rockford things, and lots more besides. Starting at age thirteen, I spent many of my weekends there, all day long, studying one book after another—books like The Paper Trip by Barry Reid, on how to create a new identity by using a birth certificate of someone who had passed away.

A book called The Big Brother Game, by Scott French, became my Bible because it was crammed with details on how to get hold of driving records, property records, credit reports, banking information, unlisted numbers, and even how to get information from police departments. (Much later, when French was writing a follow-up volume, he called to ask me if I would do a chapter on techniques for social-engineering the phone companies. At the time, my coauthor and I were writing our second book, The Art of Intrusion, and I was too busy for French’s project, though amused by the coincidence, and flattered to be asked.)

That bookstore was crammed with “underground” books that taught you things you weren’t supposed to know—very appealing to me since I had always had this urge to take a bite of knowledge from the forbidden apple. I was soaking up the knowledge that would turn out to be invaluable almost two decades later, when I was on the run.

The other item that interested me at the store besides their books was the lockpicking tools they offered for sale. I bought several different kinds. Remember the old joke that goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice”? That’s what I did to master the art of lockpicking, sometimes going down to the area of tenant storage lockers in the garage of our apartment building, where I’d pick open some of the padlocks, swap them around, and lock them again. At the time I thought it was an amusing practical joke, though looking back, I’m sure it probably threw some people into angry fits and put them to a good deal of trouble, plus the expense of a new lock after they had managed to get the old one removed. Only funny, I guess, when you’re a teenager.

One day when I was about fourteen, I was out with my uncle Mitchell, who was a bright star of my life in those years. We swung by the Department of Motor Vehicles and found it packed with people. He left me to wait while he walked straight up to the counter—just like that, walking past everyone standing in line. The DMV clerk, a lady with a bored expression, looked up in surprise. He didn’t wait for her to finish what she was doing with the man at the window but just started talking. He hadn’t said more than a few words when the clerk nodded to him, signaled the other man to step aside, and took care of whatever it was Uncle Mitchell wanted. My uncle had some special talent with people.

And I appeared to have it, too. It was my first conscious example of social engineering.

How did people see me at Monroe High School? My teachers would have said that I was always doing unexpected things. When the other kids were fixing televisions in TV repair shop, I was following in Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s footsteps and building a blue box that would allow me to manipulate the phone network and even make free phone calls. I always brought my handheld ham radio to school and talked on it during lunch and recess.

But one fellow student changed the course of my life. Steven Shalita was an arrogant guy who fancied himself as an undercover cop—his car was covered with radio antennas. He liked to show off the tricks he could do with the telephone, and he could do some amazing things. He demonstrated how he could have people call him without revealing his real phone number by using a phone company test circuit called a “loop-around”; he would call in on one of the loop’s phone numbers while the other person was calling the loop’s second phone number. The two callers would be magically connected. He could get the name and address assigned to any phone number, listed or not, by calling the phone company’s Customer Name and Address (CNA) Bureau. With a single call, he got my mom’s unlisted phone number. Wow! He could get the phone number and address of anyone, even a movie star with an unlisted number. It seemed like the folks at the phone company were just standing by to see what they could do to help him.

I was fascinated, intrigued, and I instantly became his companion, eager to learn all those incredible tricks. But Steven was only interested in showing me what he could do, not in telling me how all of this worked, how he was able to use his social-engineering skills on the people he was talking to.

Before long I had picked up just about everything he was willing to share with me about “phone phreaking” and was spending most of my free time exploring the telecommunications networks and learning on my own, figuring out things Steven didn’t even know about. And “phreakers” had a social network. I started getting to know others who shared similar interests and going to their get-togethers, even though some of the “phreaks” were, well, freaky—socially inept and uncool.

I seemed cut out for the social-engineering part of phreaking. Could I convince a phone company technician to drive to a “CO” (a central office—the neighborhood switching center that routes calls to and from a telephone) in the middle of the night to connect a “critical” circuit because he thought I was from another CO, or maybe a lineman in the field? Easy. I already knew I had talents along these lines, but it was my high school associate Steven who taught me just how powerful that ability could be.

The basic tactic is simple. Before you start social engineering for some particular goal, you do your reconnaissance. You piece together information about the company, including how that department or business unit operates, what its function is, what information the employees have access to, the standard procedure for making requests, whom they routinely get requests from, under what conditions they release the desired information, and the lingo and terminology used in the company.

The social-engineering techniques work simply because people are very trusting of anyone who establishes credibility, such as an authorized employee of the company. That’s where the research comes in. When I was ready to get access to nonpublished numbers, I called one of the phone company’s business office representatives and said, “This is Jake Roberts, from the Non-Pub Bureau. I need to talk to a supervisor.”

When the supervisor came on the line, I introduced myself again and said, “Did you get our memo that we’re changing our number?”

She went to check, came back on the line, and said, “No, we didn’t.”

I said, “You should be using 213 687-9962.”

“No,” she said. “We dial 213 320-0055.”

Bingo!

“Okay,” I told her. “We’ll be sending a memo to a second-level”—the phone company lingo for a manager—“regarding the change. Meanwhile keep on using 320-0055 until you get the memo.”

But when I called the Non-Pub Bureau, it turned out my name had to be on a list of authorized people, with an internal callback number, before they would release any customer information to me. A novice or inept social engineer might have just hung up. Bad news: it raises suspicions.

Ad-libbing on the spot, I said, “My manager told me he was putting me on the list. I’ll have to tell him you didn’t get his memo yet.”

Another hurdle: I would somehow have to be able to provide a phone number internal to the phone company that I could receive calls on!

I had to call three different business offices before I found one that had a second-level who was a man—someone I could impersonate. I told him, “This is Tom Hansen from the Non-Pub Bureau. We’re updating our list of authorized employees. Do you still need to be on the list?”

Of course he said yes.

I then asked him to spell his name and give me his phone number. Like taking candy from a baby.

My next call was to RCMAC—the Recent Change Memory Authorization Center, the phone company unit that handled adding or removing customer phone services such as custom-calling features. I called posing as a manager from the business office. It was easy to convince the clerk to add call forwarding to the manager’s line, since the number belonged to Pacific Telephone.

In detail, it worked like this: I called a technician in the appropriate central office. Believing I was a repair tech in the field, he clipped onto the manager’s line using a lineman’s handset and dialed the digits I gave him, effectively call-forwarding the manager’s phone to a phone company “loop-around” circuit. A loop-around is a special circuit that has two numbers associated with it. When two parties call into the loop-around, by dialing the respective numbers, they are magically joined together as if they called each other.

I dialed into the loop-around circuit and three-wayed in a number that would just ring, ring, and ring, so when Non-Pub called back to the authorized manager’s line, the call would be forwarded to the loop-around, and the caller would hear the ringing. I let the person hear a few rings and then I answered, “Pacific Telephone, Steve Kaplan.”

At that point the person would give me whatever Non-Pub information I was looking for. Then I’d call back the frame technician and have the call-forwarding deactivated.

The tougher the challenge, the greater the thrill. This trick worked for years and would very likely still work today!

In a series of calls over a period of time—because it would seem suspicious to ask Non-Pub to look up the numbers of several celebrities—I got the phone numbers and addresses of Roger Moore, Lucille Ball, James Garner, Bruce Springsteen, and a bunch of others. Sometimes I’d call and actually get the person on the line, then say something like, “Hey, Bruce, what’s up?” No harm done, but it was exciting to find anyone’s number I wanted.

Monroe High offered a computer course. I didn’t have the required math and science courses to qualify, but the teacher, Mr. Christ (pronounced to rhyme with “twist”), saw how eager I was, recognized how much I had already learned on my own, and admitted me. I think he came to regret the decision: I was a handful. I got his computer password to the school district’s minicomputer every time he changed it. In desperation, thinking to outfox me, he punched out his password on a piece of computer paper tape, which was the type of storage used in those pre-floppy-drive days; he would then feed that through the tape reader whenever he wanted to sign on. But he kept the short piece of punched tape in his shirt pocket, where the holes were visible through the thin cloth. Some of my classmates helped me figure out the pattern of holes on the tape and learn his latest password every time he changed it. He never did catch on.

Then there was the telephone in the computer lab—the old kind of phone, with a rotary dial. The phone was programmed for only calling numbers within the school district. I started using it to dial into the USC computers to play computer games, by telling the switchboard operator, “This is Mr. Christ. I need an outside line.” When the operator started to get suspicious after numerous calls, I switched to phone-phreaker tactics, dialing into the phone company switch and turning off the restriction so I could just dial into USC whenever I wanted. Eventually he figured out that I had managed to make unrestricted outgoing calls.

Soon after he proudly announced to the class how he was going to stop me from dialing into USC once and for all, and held up a lock made especially for dial telephones: when locked in place in the “1” hole, it prevented the dial from being used.

As soon as he had the lock in place, with the whole class watching, I picked up the handset and started clicking the switch hook: nine fast clicks for the number “9” to get an outside line, seven fast clicks for the number “7.” Four clicks for the number “4.” Within a minute, I was connected to USC.

To me it was just a game of wits. But poor Mr. Christ had been humiliated. His face a bright red, he grabbed the phone off the desk and hurled it across the classroom.

But meanwhile I was teaching myself about RSTS/E (spoken as “RIS-tisEE”), the operating system manufactured by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) used on the school’s minicomputer located in downtown Los Angeles. The nearby Cal State campus at Northridge (CSUN) also used RSTS/E on its computers. I set up an appointment with the chairman of the Computer Science Department, Wes Hampton, and told him, “I’m extremely interested in learning about computers. Could I buy an account to use the computers here?”

“No, they’re only for our registered students.”

Giving up easily isn’t one of my character traits. “At my high school, the computer lab shuts down at the end of the school day, three o’clock. Could you set up a program so the high school computer students could learn on your computers?”

He turned me down but called me soon after. “We’ve decided to give you permission to use our computers,” he said. “We can’t give you an account because you’re not a student, so I’ve decided to let you use my personal account. The account is ‘5,4’ and the password is ‘Wes.’ ”

This man was chairman of the Computer Science Department, and that was his idea of a secure password—his first name? Some security!

I started teaching myself the Fortran and Basic programming languages. After only a few weeks of computer class, I wrote a program to steal people’s passwords: a student trying to sign on saw what looked like the familiar login banner but was actually my program masquerading as the operating system, designed to trick users into entering their account and password (similar to phishing attacks today). Actually, one of the CSUN lab monitors had given me a hand debugging my code—they thought it was a lark that this high schooler had figured out how to steal passwords. Once the little program was up and running on the terminals in the lab, whenever a student logged in, his or her username and password were secretly recorded in a file.

Why? My friends and I thought it would be cool to get everyone’s password. There was no sinister plan, just collecting information for the hell of it. Just because. It was another of those challenges I repeatedly put to myself throughout the entire early part of my life, from the time I saw my first magic trick. Could I learn to do tricks like that? Could I learn to fool people? Could I gain powers I wasn’t supposed to have?

Sometime later one of the lab monitors ratted me out to the system administrator. Next thing I knew, three campus police officers stormed the computer lab. They held me until my mom came to pick me up.

The department chairman, who had given me permission to use the lab and let me log in on his own account, was furious. But there wasn’t much he could do: in those days, there were no computer laws on the books so there was nothing to charge me with. Still, my privileges were canceled, and I was ordered to stay off the campus.

My mom was told, “Next month a new California law goes into effect making what Kevin is doing a crime.” (The U.S. Congress wouldn’t get around to passing a federal law about computer crime for another four years, but a litany of my activities would be used to convince Congress to pass the new law.)

In any case, I wasn’t put off by the threat. Not long after that visit, I found a way to divert calls to Directory Assistance from people in Rhode Island, so the calls would come to me instead. How do you have fun with people who are trying to get a phone number? A typical call in one of my routines went like this:

Me: What city, please?

Caller: Providence.

Me: What is the name, please?

Caller: John Norton.

Me: Is this a business or a residence?

Caller: Residence.

Me: The number is 836, 5 one-half 66.

At this point the caller was usually either baffled or indignant.

Caller: How do I dial one-half?!

Me: Go pick up a new phone that has uh-half on it.

The reactions I got were hilarious.

In those days, two separate phone companies served different parts of the Los Angeles area. General Telephone and Electronics Corporation (GTE) served the northern part of the San Fernando Valley, where we lived; any calls over twelve miles were charged at a long-distance rate. Of course I didn’t want to run up my mom’s phone bill, so I was making some calls using a local ham radio auto patch.

One day on the air I had heated words with the control operator of the repeater over what he labeled “weird calls” I was making. He had noticed I was regularly keying in a long series of digits when I was using the auto patch. I wasn’t about to explain that those digits I was entering allowed me to make free long-distance calls through a long-distance provider called MCI. Though he had no clue about what I was actually doing, he didn’t like the fact that I was using the auto patch in a strange way. A guy listening in contacted me afterward on the air, said his name was Lewis De Payne, and gave me his phone number. I called him that evening. Lewis said he was intrigued by what I was doing.

We met and became friends, a relationship that lasted for two decades. Of Argentinean heritage, Lewis was thin and geeky, with short-cropped black hair, slicked down and brushed straight back, and sporting a mustache that he probably thought made him look older. On hacking projects, Lewis was the guy I would come to trust most in the world, though he came with a personality filled with contradictions. Very polite, but always trying to have the upper hand. Nerdy, with his out-of-fashion clothing choice of turtlenecks and wide-bottomed trousers, yet with all the social graces. Low-key yet arrogant.

Lewis and I had similar senses of humor. I think any hobby that doesn’t provide some fun and a few laughs now and then probably isn’t worth the time and effort you put into it. Lewis and I were on the same wavelength. Like our “McDonald’s hacks.” We found out how to modify a two-meter radio so we could make our voices come out of the speaker where customers placed their orders at the drive-through of a fast-food restaurant. We’d head over to a McDonald’s, park nearby where we could watch the action without being noticed, and tune the handheld radio to the restaurant’s frequency.

A cop car would pull in to the drive-through lane, and when it got up to the speaker, Lewis or I would announce, “I’m sorry. We don’t serve cops here. You’ll have to go to Jack in the Box.” Once a woman pulled up and heard the voice over the speaker (mine) tell her, “Show me your titties, and your Big Mac is free!” She didn’t take it well. She turned off the car, grabbed something out of her trunk, and ran inside… wielding a baseball bat.

“Complimentary apple juice” was one of my favorite gags. After a customer placed an order, we’d explain that our ice machine was broken, so we were giving away free juice. “We’ve got grapefruit, orange, and… oh, sorry, looks like we’re out of grapefruit and orange. Would you like apple juice?” When the customer said yes, we’d play a recording of someone peeing into a cup, then say, “Okay. Your apple juice is ready. Please drive forward to the window and pick it up.”

We thought it would be funny if we drove people a little nuts by making it impossible to place their order. Taking over the speaker, each time a customer pulled up and placed an order, a friend of ours would repeat the order, but in a strong Hindi accent with hardly a word understandable. The customer would say he couldn’t understand, and our friend would say something else just as impossible to understand, over and over—driving customers crazy, one after the other.

The best part was that everything we said at the drive-through also blared out over the speaker outside, but the employees couldn’t override it. Sometimes we’d watch the customers sitting outside at the tables, eating their burgers and laughing. No one could figure out what was going on.

One time, a manager came out to see who was messing with the speaker. He glanced around the parking lot, scratching his head. There was no one around. The cars were empty. No one was hiding behind the sign. He walked over to the speaker and leaned in close, squinting, as if he expected to see a tiny person inside.

“What the fuck are you looking at?!” I shouted in a raspy voice.

He must’ve jumped back ten feet!

Sometimes when we were playing these pranks, the people who lived in the apartments nearby would stand on their balconies, laughing. Even people on the sidewalk were in stitches. Lewis and I actually brought friends along with us several times, because it was so hilarious.

Okay, childish, but I was only sixteen or seventeen at the time.

Some of my escapades weren’t quite as innocent. I had a personal rule about not entering any phone company facilities, tempting though it would be to actually gain access to the systems and maybe read some phone company technical manuals. But, as they say, it was less like a rule for me than a guideline.

One night in 1981, when I was seventeen, I was hanging out with another phone-phreaker buddy, Steven Rhoades. We decided to sneak into Pacific Telephone’s Sunset-Gower central office, in Hollywood. Since we were already phone phreaking, strolling into the phone company in person was the ultimate hack. Access was by pressing the right code numbers on the outside door’s keypad, and we social-engineered the code without a problem, letting us walk right in.

My God—how exciting! For us, it was the ultimate playground. But what should we look for?

A large man in a security guard’s uniform was making his rounds of the building and came upon us. He was built like a nightclub bouncer or an NFL lineman—very intimidating. Just standing quietly, hands at his sides, he could scare the pants off you. Yet somehow, the tighter the situation, the calmer I seem to get.

I didn’t really look old enough to pass for a full-time employee. But I dived in anyway. “Hi,” I said. “How’re you tonight?”

He said, “Fine, sir. May I see your company ID badges please?”

I checked my pockets. “Damn. I must have left it in the car. I’ll just go get it.”

He wasn’t having any of that. “No, you’re both coming upstairs with me,” he said.

We didn’t argue.

He brings us to the Switching Control Center on the ninth floor, where other employees are working.

Heart pounding. Chest heaving.

A couple of switch techs come over to see what’s going on. I’m thinking that my only option is to try to outrun the rent-a-cop, but I know there’s slim chance of getting away. I’m desperate. It feels like there’s nothing between me and jail but my social-engineering skills.

By now I know enough names and titles at Pacific Telephone to try a ploy. I explain, “I work at the COSMOS in San Diego, and I’m just showing a friend what a central office looks like. You can call my supervisor and check me out.” And I give him the name of a COSMOS supervisor. Thank God for a good memory, yet I know we don’t look like we belong there, and the story is lame.

The guard looks up the supervisor’s name in the intercompany directory, finds her home phone number, and places the call. Ring, ring, ring. He starts with an apology for calling so late and explains the situation.

I say, “Let me talk to her.”

He hands me the phone, which I press hard against my ear, praying he won’t be able to hear her voice. I ad-lib something along the lines of, “Judy, I’m really sorry about this—I was giving my friend a tour of the switching center and left my company ID card in the car. The security guard is just verifying I’m from the COSMOS center in San Diego. I hope you won’t hold this against me.”

I pause a few beats, as if listening to her. She’s ranting. “Who is this? Do I know you? What are you doing there?!”

I start in again. “It was just that I had to be here in the morning anyway, for the meeting on that new training manual. And I have a review session with Jim on Monday at eleven, in case you want to drop in. You and I are still having lunch on Tuesday, right?”

Another pause. She’s still ranting.

“Sure. Sorry again for disturbing you,” I say.

And then I hang up.

The guard and switch techs look confused; they were expecting me to hand the phone back to the security guard so she could tell him it was okay. You could just see the look on the guard’s face: Did he dare disturb her a second time?

I tell him, “She sure was upset at being woken up at two thirty in the morning.”

Then I say, “There’s just a couple other things I want to show my friend. I’ll only be another ten minutes.”

I walk out, Rhoades following close behind.

Obviously I want to run but know I can’t.

We reach the elevator. I bang the button for the ground floor. We sigh with relief when we get out of the building, scared shitless because it was such a close call, happy to be out of there.

But I know what’s happening. The lady is calling around desperately, trying to find somebody who knows how to get the phone number for the guard’s desk at the Sunset-Gower CO, in the middle of the night.

We get to the car. I drive a block away without turning on my headlights. I stop and we sit there, watching the front door of the building.

After about ten minutes, the burly guard comes out, looking around in every direction but knowing damned well we’re long gone. Of course, he’s wrong.

I wait until he goes back inside, then drive away, turning on my headlights after rounding the first corner.

That was too close. If he had called the cops, the charge would have been breaking and entering, or even worse, burglary. Steve and I would have been headed to Juvenile Hall.

I wouldn’t be going back into a telephone company facility again anytime soon, but I was keen to find something else—something big—to challenge my ingenuity.

Get this book you won’t regret it, it’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read

Karl Niebuhr

Karl Niebuhr

Hi there,
I often learn awesome stuff while reading and it makes me want to share that shit. That's what this site is for, hope you not just learn from it but enjoy it like I do!
Karl Niebuhr

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