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Is Prank Calling Illegal? It Depends (Avoid Legal Trouble)

Making prank calls is illegal in many places. The exact laws vary by jurisdiction, but generally, if a prank call involves harassment, threats, or other illegal activities, it can lead to legal consequences.
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Collen Clark Published by Collen Clark

What is a Prank Call?

According to Wikipedia, a prank call, also known as a crank call, hoax call, or goof call, is a telephone call made by the caller to play a practical joke on the person answering. It is often considered a type of nuisance call and can be illegal in certain situations [1]. Recordings of prank phone calls have been popular among musicians, sound engineers, and media traders in the United States since the late 1970s.

When is Making a Prank Call Illegal?

In different states, the legality of prank phone calls hinges on whether they are deliberately intended to:

  • Annoy
  • Harass, or
  • Threaten the recipient

Such calls can also be deemed illegal if they:

  • Constitute disorderly conduct
  • Are obscene
  • Involve recording the call without the recipient’s consent, or
  • Are made to 911 or another emergency response number

According to SCLG, with the advent of caller ID, which can identify prank callers by their phone number, such practical jokes have become less prevalent [2].

Among the most famous and earliest recorded prank calls are the Tube Bar prank calls tapes, which centered on Louis “Red” Deutsch. Comedian Jerry Lewis was an incorrigible phone prankster, and recordings of his hijinks, dating from the 1960s and possibly earlier, still circulate to this day – SCLG

Is it Illegal to Prank Call 911?

Prank calling 911 or other emergency response numbers is often considered a more serious offense compared to other types of prank calls. States like California have specific laws to prohibit this behavior. Depending on the nature of the call, it could be classified as falsely reporting an emergency.

One increasingly common form of this behavior is known as “swatting,” where the caller falsely reports a hostage situation or other serious incident at the victim’s address. The goal is to have the SWAT team or other law enforcement officers dispatched to the target’s home, causing distress and disruption.

If caught and charged, the caller could face severe penalties, including:

  • Up to a $10,000 fine
  • Up to three years in prison

Additionally, if found guilty, the caller may be responsible for covering the costs incurred by the emergency response.

How to Stop a Prank Caller

Prank calls can be highly irritating, especially if they persist over time.

Threatening, obscene, or harassing calls can escalate into serious issues. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to identify and stop prank callers:

1. Block the Calls: While mobile phone companies do not offer the same Call Block or Call Screen services that landline phone companies do, you may still be able to have the calls from a particular number blocked. Many companies offer services for parents who want to restrict their child’s mobile phone use, including the ability to prevent specific numbers from calling the phone.

2. Contact the Police: If the calls are threatening or harassing, they may violate local or state laws. Contact your local police department to report threatening calls. Harassing calls to a cell phone may also be covered by electronic communications harassment laws in your state.

3. Screen Your Calls: Your mobile phone should display the prank caller’s number. Avoid answering calls from that number to avoid engaging with them.

4. Send Prank Calls to Voicemail: Create a contact in your phone for the prank caller’s number. Many phones allow you to change the settings for incoming calls from specific contacts, such as assigning a different ringtone or sending calls straight to voicemail. If your phone doesn’t have this feature, set the ringtone for the prank caller’s contact to silent.

5. Use Call Management Apps: Check your app store for call management and call-blocking apps. The availability of these apps depends on your phone’s operating system, but many free apps can block calls from specific numbers.

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