Ramblings & ephemera

Matthew, the blind phone phreaker

From Kevin Poulsen’s “Teenage Hacker Is Blind, Brash and in the Crosshairs of the FBI” (Wired: 29 February 2008):

At 4 in the morning of May 1, 2005, deputies from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office converged on the suburban Colorado Springs home of Richard Gasper, a TSA screener at the local Colorado Springs Municipal Airport. They were expecting to find a desperate, suicidal gunman holding Gasper and his daughter hostage.

“I will shoot,” the gravely voice had warned, in a phone call to police minutes earlier. “I’m not afraid. I will shoot, and then I will kill myself, because I don’t care.”

But instead of a gunman, it was Gasper himself who stepped into the glare of police floodlights. Deputies ordered Gasper’s hands up and held him for 90 minutes while searching the house. They found no armed intruder, no hostages bound in duct tape. Just Gasper’s 18-year-old daughter and his baffled parents.

A federal Joint Terrorism Task Force would later conclude that Gasper had been the victim of a new type of nasty hoax, called “swatting,” that was spreading across the United States. Pranksters were phoning police with fake murders and hostage crises, spoofing their caller IDs so the calls appear to be coming from inside the target’s home. The result: police SWAT teams rolling to the scene, sometimes bursting into homes, guns drawn.

Now the FBI thinks it has identified the culprit in the Colorado swatting as a 17-year-old East Boston phone phreak known as “Li’l Hacker.” Because he’s underage, Wired.com is not reporting Li’l Hacker’s last name. His first name is Matthew, and he poses a unique challenge to the federal justice system, because he is blind from birth.

Interviews by Wired.com with Matt and his associates, and a review of court documents, FBI reports and audio recordings, paints a picture of a young man with an uncanny talent for quick telephone con jobs. Able to commit vast amounts of information to memory instantly, Matt has mastered the intricacies of telephone switching systems, while developing an innate understanding of human psychology and organization culture — knowledge that he uses to manipulate his patsies and torment his foes.

Matt says he ordered phone company switch manuals off the internet and paid to have them translated into Braille. He became a regular caller to internal telephone company lines, where he’d masquerade as an employee to perform tricks like tracing telephone calls, getting free phone features, obtaining confidential customer information and disconnecting his rivals’ phones.

It was, relatively speaking, mild stuff. The teen though, soon fell in with a bad crowd. The party lines were dominated by a gang of half-a-dozen miscreants who informally called themselves the “Wrecking Crew” and “The Cavalry.”

By then, Matt’s reputation had taken on a life of its own, and tales of some of his hacks — perhaps apocryphal — are now legends. According to Daniels, he hacked his school’s PBX so that every phone would ring at once. Another time, he took control of a hotel elevator, sending it up and down over and over again. One story has it that Matt phoned a telephone company frame room worker at home in the middle of the night, and persuaded him to get out of bed and return to work to disconnect someone’s phone.

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