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Is prank calling illegal? A defense attorney explains

March 21, 2024 Uncategorized

Is Prank Calling Illegal? Our Criminal Attorneys Discuss

Prank calling has been around for years and years. Since the dawn of the telephone, callers have been entertaining themselves by disguising their voices and engaging in jokes with whoever picks up the phone. Sometimes though, prank calls can cross ethical and legal lines – resulting in criminal offenses such as harassment, threats, or fraud. When does a prank call become illegal? As a criminal defense attorney, I’m often asked to examine the legality of prank calls. Here’s an overview of laws and examples of potentially criminal prank calls:

When Does a Prank Call Become Illegal?

Most calls that are jokes, to friends, or businesses are legal, but slightly immature to say the least! But, prank calls can break laws depending on the situation at hand:

  • Harassment – Repeatedly engaging in unwanted calls to annoy, abuse, or threaten someone can be perceived as harassment.
  • Trespassing – Prank delivering food/services to someone else’s house without consent is a form of tresspassing..
  • Swatting pranks – Falsely reporting crimes which result in the FBI/Police raiding someone’s house is a form of swatting. This is not a legal prank.
  • Obscenity – If you make lewd, or vulgar calls, without consent, this is illegal – and no longer
  • Impersonation – If you do this to get money, or information, fraudulently, then this is a crime.
  • Threats – If you intimidate, or threaten injury, during the call – then the prank call is illegal.
  • Disrupting phone service – Blocking lines or making repeated calls in order to disrupt someones phone service – this is illegal.
  • Privacy violations – Each state is different when it comes to recording calls, you have to make sure you’re not illegally recording a call.

The key to figuring out whether the prank call is illegal, is whether the call resulted in someone being in fear, in panic, incited violence, caused actual damages, or was made for fraudulent purposes. There’s a big difference between harmless and illegal conduct. But if you act maliciously, threaten someone, or make dangerous calls – then it can result in felony charges.

Harassment Charges For Unwanted Calls

In many state laws, if you repeatedly call someone in a harassing manner – then it’s a misdemeanor or felony crime. What constitutes harassment? Here are some factors prosecutors consider:

  • Number of calls – Repeated unwanted calls to the same individual, can show intent to harass.
  • Time of day – Late night or early morning calls can be indicative of harassment.
  • Call content – Abusive, vulgar, threatening, or obscene language will be looked to see if it was harmless joke, or actual harassment.
  • Caller ID spoofing – Masking your number could be used to determine what your intent was.
  • Purpose – Calling solely to annoy or frighten the intended target is going to be considered when harassment is in question.
  • Impact on victim – Prosecutors will look to see what happened to the victim based on your conduct.

While an isolated immature prank call may not get noticed, a pattern of unwanted prank calls, especially threatening calls, can warrant criminal charges with penalties of up to 2 years in some states.

Swatting Is Dangerous – And Illegal

One of the most dangerous illegal pranks is “swatting” – making fake calls to emergency services reporting violent crimes in progress to elicit an armed law enforcement response at a targeted home. This reckless hoax endangers everyone by wasting critical resources and creating police encounters that can turn fatal in seconds.

Many kid think it’s funny to call the police and lie about potential hostage situations, bomb threats, kidnappings, and more, but it’s a federal crime under 18 USC § 1038. Adults over 18 can get five or more years in prison for calling in a swatting attack on someone else. If death results from police actions, felony murder charges could happen.

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Impersonation and Fraudulent Schemes

While impersonating others as a prank may seem harmless, pretending to be someone you’re not for money or valuables crosses into fraud. Scams like calling elderly folks impersonating the IRS to obtain sensitive data can mean serious identity theft and fraud charges.

Schemes using prepaid phones and spoofing technology to fake caller IDs should be avoided. Under federal wire fraud laws, phone impersonation tricks to steal money, accounts, or information can lead to decades behind bars, plus massive civil liability. Don’t let pranks destroy trust and harm innocent victims.

When Are Threatening, Prank Calls Criminal?

First Amendment free speech rights don’t cover threats of violence made as pranks to instill fear. Under most state laws, threats to:

  • Cause bodily injury or death
  • Damage property
  • Subject someone to physical confinement or restraint

They can be charged as misdemeanors or felonies with fines and multi-year prison terms if credible threats are made, even as a hoax. Don’t falsely claim to be stalking someone or threaten violent attacks or bomb plots, even if meant as a joke. Terroristic threatening laws are applied broadly by prosecutors.

Can Parents Be Liable for their Kids’ Prank Calls?

Parents of a kid engaging in prank calls can face civil liability and fines if their children repeatedly make illegal prank calls. Under parental responsibility laws, parents must exert supervision and control over their kids. Penalties can result from actions such as:

  • Failing to monitor phone or computer use
  • Allowing access to caller ID spoofing services
  • Not contacting authorities about the child’s prior prank call history

While one or two childish pranks may not warrant charges, a pattern of harassing, threatening, vulgar or fraudulent calls should lead parents to intervene and impose discipline to avoid facing charges themselves.

Pranks Calls at School

Students have to be careful with prank calls to teachers, administrators or classmates. These types of prank calls have additional consequences apply in school settings. Prank calling a teacher or classmate can violate school codes of conduct prohibiting:

  • Harassment, discrimination, bullying
  • Disrupting school activities
  • Violations of technology use policies
  • Detrimental behavior

Beyond criminal penalties, students who engage in prank calls can also face suspension, expulsion, and permanent disciplinary records.

How to Avoid Legal Problems

While most realize that swatting attacks or impersonation frauds is illegal, even someone making more minor prank calls can find themselves charged and arrested if they keep doing it – despite warnings. Here are some tips for staying on the right side of the law:

  • Avoid any threatening or obscene language.
  • Never call anonymously or block your number.
  • If told to stop calling someone, respect that immediately.
  • Never pretend to be someone else or make false reports.
  • Don’t violate privacy – avoid recording people without consent.
  • Call friends and family you know want your humor, not unconsenting strangers or businesses.
  • Parents should educate teens on the consequences and monitor phone use.

With basic respect for others and common sense, phone pranking can stay light-hearted and fun for all involved. But crossing lines into harassment, threats, panic, or fraud should be avoided to sidestep criminal liability. The criminal justice system takes a severe view of any prank activity touching on violence, vulnerabilities, or predation. A defense attorney like myself can advise where legal boundaries lie. When in doubt, always err on the side of caution by keeping jokes harmless and consensual.

Key Points on Prank Calling Legality

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