They’re called “phreakers,” and they can do with a phone what hackers can do with computers. Few were more skilled—or more feared—than Matt Weigman, a blind teenager from East Boston. Using his heightened senses, he made himself untouchable. What he lacked, the FBI says, was the good sense to know when to hang up.
The enduring appeal of the party line in the age of the Internet owes a good deal to the real human contact a telephone provides. You can read passion and anger in a voice. You don’t need emoticons to tell when someone is sad; you don’t have to spell out to the other party that you’re Laughing Out Loud.
In 2006, Weigman met his girlfriend, Chastity, through a party line called “Jackie Donut.” Though they’ve never met in person, the party lines have helped them sustain a relationship for two and a half years. Chastity had known of Weigman before they spoke and had heard of his phreaking skills, of how he’d once procured Eminem’s cell-phone number, which she thought was pretty cool. But the emotional connection offered by the phone also means people can get hurt and manipulated. Weaknesses and faults are subject to relentless scrutiny. For Weigman, this meant insults about his blindness. As the atmosphere darkened on the Jackie Donut line—and on other lines he frequented, including “Seattle Donut” and “Boston Loach”—he came to regard his phone as a weapon to wield in his defense.
There were always pranks on the party lines; they’re ingrained in the broader hacker ethos. But by 2004 things had progressed from the childish (like ordering food to be delivered to a rival’s house) to the downright mean (shutting off a phone line) to the flat-out nasty. A party-liner from New York state who goes by the name Nunya was a frequent target. She admits that she poked her tormentors, though. She’s got a mouth, she says. Before long, the phreakers’ prank orders had gotten her blacklisted at all the pizza places in town. By her count, their hoax calls resulted in two visits from a tow company, two from the fire department, and three from the cops. (As a precautionary measure, she began leaving a note posted on her door notifying responding officers that it was unlocked, so they wouldn’t feel the need to break it down.) Her landlord was threatened and harassed in an effort to get her evicted. But by far the most frequent calls were those that involved her kids. “They told social services that my children were outside eating out of garbage cans. Then they said that I was a prostitute and that my kids were outside on the porch while I’m inside with my johns.”
It’s impossible to pin down exactly who was responsible for which phone assault, mostly because all the offenders claimed responsibility for everything, not unlike the way every jihadist with an e-mail account proclaims triumph when a bomb goes off. The phreakers would boast of their attacks, playing recordings of the hoax calls to one another over the phone as a kind of audio trophy. Everyone on the party lines knew the usual suspects, Weigman among them.
“He was a miserable kid that messed with everybody,” one party-liner wrote in an e-mail. And while Nunya taunted the other phreakers, she kept her distance from Weigman. “I sense[d] he was crazy enough to do anything,” she says.
“He was a force to be reckoned with on the phone,” says Daniels. “He was feared by grown men and women. I’m saying feared. Like, ‘Please, I’ll do whatever you say.’ And I don’t mean by a few people, I mean by masses of people. Because he was that ruthless.”
Daniels says that as the trouble escalated, so did Weigman’s intolerance of being taken lightly, of being dismissed for his age or his disability. “I think what made him mad is when he’d run into other phreakers who didn’t really know him and they would…try to belittle him. Say, like, ‘Oh, you’re just a little blind punk-ass kid.’ That would enrage him. He’d go from nice to naughty real fast.”
Nunya said Weigman never harassed her personally. Everyone else did, though. She was an easy target because the misfits had her information—real name, address, phone number. This is why every party-liner calls in under an alias: Your identity is your Achilles’ heel. If the phreakers got hold of your information, you were in their control. All it took was one piece of data, and they could use a commercial research database or work their social-engineering magic to pull the rest of your identity from the phone company.
And once they had that, they could force you to do anything, from aiding in the harassment of other callers to the ultimate humiliation. “No phone sex, no dial tone” was allegedly a favorite phrase of party-liner Stuart Rosoff. By most accounts, Rosoff was one of the worst menaces to fellow party-liners. According to Chastity, Rosoff (who went by the handle Michael Knight) pressed Weigman repeatedly for her personal information, but Weigman refused to comply.
In early 2007, someone allegedly called the Massachusetts Department of Social Services and said that they’d witnessed a sexual assault at Weigman’s home involving Weigman’s infant sister. As a clincher, the caller reportedly added that there was a crack pipe in the house. When DSS paid Weigman’s horrified mother a visit, she told the caseworkers they’d been lied to. The incident enraged Weigman, who was so convinced there were more plots forming against him that he stopped going to school so he could stay at home and monitor the party lines.
By now, the phreakers were making increasing use of a new trick that allowed them to fool emergency responders by manipulating caller ID—as they did to Jim Proulx that night in Alvarado, Texas. Proulx’s brush with a SWAT team came on account of his daughter Stephanie, who no longer even lived with him. She was reportedly a brash presence on the party line, mocking the phreakers and daring them to action. So strong was the hatred toward her that the phreakers put aside the conflicts that had arisen during their battle for party-line supremacy and focused their efforts on putting her in her place.
Following the Alvarado incident, a $300 prize was offered to whoever could pull another so-called SWATting against Stephanie or her family, according to an indictment later filed in a case against Stuart Rosoff and three other party-liners. Despite what you might expect, setting up such an attack is hardly complicated. For their most brazen gambit, the phreakers stooped to using one of the handful of online sites providing what’s called a “spoofing” service, which allows calls to appear to come from any number you’d like.
A few months after the Alvarado SWATting, the Fort Worth police department responded to a call from the apartment of Stephanie Proulx. There was, of course, no emergency. That’s when Stephanie told them about the party line, the harassment, and the power the phreakers had to manipulate their calls. The Fort Worth police called the Dallas branch of the FBI, which assigned Special Agent Allyn Lynd to figure out what was going on.