Have you ever picked up a call only to hear a joke or silence? Or you’re the one dialing, seeking a laugh at someone else’s expense? Prank calls may seem like jokes, but here’s the burning question: Is prank calling illegal? The quick answer is, yes, it can be.
In this article, we will discuss when prank calls are illegal and what penalties violators should expect. So, let’s start!
A prank call is a telephone call made to play a trick or cause amusement. Usually, people make funny or tricky phone calls to fool the person on the other end.
In the United States, prank calling is not addressed by federal laws. But, remember, some activities during a prank call could get you in legal trouble.
Prank calls are illegal if they involve:
Let’s take a closer look.
When a prank call keeps happening and the person is being mean or scary on purpose, it’s harassment. This can include unwanted phone calls, text messages, or other forms of communication that target an individual. So if you ask if prank texting is illegal, in this case, yes.
This also applies to the time of day when you make the call. If you prank at night or early in the morning, the police may also consider this as harassment.
Harassment can lead to feelings of fear, anxiety, and helplessness. The constant unwanted communication can disrupt victims’ personal and professional lives, causing difficulties. They may feel less secure and peaceful.
Another legal angle is disorderly conduct. This category includes prank calls that use offensive language or try to disturb. Different states have different ways of interpreting and enforcing laws about disorderly conduct. But, in general, if a prank call becomes abusive, it could be a violation.
Hate crimes represent a more severe legal category that prank calls can fall into. Prosecutors can charge hate crimes when someone targets individuals because of their race or religion. These actions are harmful because they target an individual’s identity.
Hate crimes, as defined by 18 U.S. Code § 249, target race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. The penalty for the offense can be up to 10 years in prison, fines, or both.
To legally record a call, everyone involved must agree to the wiretapping laws. It is illegal to call random numbers and record them without permission.
Authorities could charge you with a misdemeanor or a felony. Punishments range from one year in jail and a $2,500 fine to three years in jail and $10,000 in fines.
One of the most serious forms of illegal prank calling involves bomb threats. This activity is also called “swatting”. It involves fake calls about major crimes to the SWAT team or other law enforcement agencies. Swatting calls are always taken very seriously because they can endanger public safety.
According to 18 U.S. Code § 844, the authorities can imprison or fine anyone who makes a threat or conveys false information about attempting to kill, injure, intimidate, or damage property using fire for up to 10 years, or both.
The court considers prank calls to emergency services like 911 quite strictly. These calls can lead to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine for a first offense. Repeated or particularly harmful prank calls to 911 can result in extra jail time and higher fines. For example, if you make a lot of calls or report a non-existent threat, you can face felony charges.
But, it’s important to clarify that not all prank calls are illegal. As long as the caller doesn’t harm, harass, or threaten and the recipient isn’t bothered, the calls may not be against the law. But, the area is mostly subjective and depends on the call’s context and content.
For example, let’s deal with the question “Is it illegal to prank call fast food places?”. Usually, these jokes are completely legal and it’s not bad to prank call them. But if you make such calls several times, the restaurant has the right to call the police for harassment. And also if you record and post it in public.
The police will treat this as a misdemeanor and you will get off with a fine. But, any prank call can get out of hand, for example, if the restaurant perceives it as reputational damage. So, be careful when posting prank calls to the public.
Even if the prank call is not illegal, it can still affect people psychologically. The recipient of a prank call may experience feelings of fear, humiliation, or anxiety. Invading their personal space can hurt their emotions for a long time.
In some cases, the psychological impact can be long-lasting, leading to emotional distress. The trust between people can break, making it hard for the victim to feel safe. They might have trouble concentrating, sleeping, or socializing.
Also, don’t make prank calls to a person who has a restraining order against you. It is illegal and you will get a Class A misdemeanor.
So let’s summarize how long you can go to jail for prank calling. This includes various offenses across states, along with the corresponding penalties.
|State/Federal Law||Offense Type||Penalty|
|California||Harassment (Penal Code 653m)||Up to 6 months in jail and/or $1,000 fine|
|Nevada||Harassment (Revised Statute 201.255)||Up to 6 months in prison and/or $1,000 fine|
|Texas||Harassment (Class B misdemeanor)||Fine up to $2,000 and/or up to 180 days in jail|
|Florida||Harassment (Second-Degree Misdemeanor)||Up to 60 days in county jail, six months probation, or $500 fine|
|Ohio||Disorderly Conduct (4th degree Misdemeanor)||Citation, possible fine, court costs, up to 180 days jail, $250 fine for repeated offenses|
|New York||Disorderly Conduct (Violation)||Up to 15 days in jail and/or $250 fine|
|Texas||Disorderly Conduct (Class C Misdemeanor)||Fine up to $500, increased penalties for involving firearms|
|Florida||Disorderly Conduct (Misdemeanor)||Citation with a fine, community service, or jail sentence|
|Federal Law||Hate Crimes (18 U.S. Code § 249)||Up to 10 years imprisonment, fines, or both|
|Federal Law||Wiretapping Violations||Misdemeanor: Up to a year in jail and/or $2,500 fine; Felony: Up to 3 years in jail and $10,000 fine|
|Federal Law||Bomb Threats (18 U.S. Code § 844)||Up to 10 years imprisonment or fine, or both|
|General (Various States)||Prank Calls to 911||Up to a year in jail and/or $1,000 fine; more severe for repeated offenses|
Recent legal cases show how serious prank calling can be when it goes too far. Here are two prominent examples.
The incident took place on December 28, 2017, in Wichita, Kansas. It began with an online dispute among players of the video game Call of Duty. Tyler Barriss, a California resident, made a hoax call to Wichita police. He reported a false homicide and hostage situation at an address provided by one of the gamers.
When police arrived at the reported address, they encountered an innocent man, Andrew Finch, who was not involved in the dispute. Finch was fatally shot by police. Barriss faced charges about a false report resulting in manslaughter, cyberstalking, and conspiracy. He pleaded guilty in federal court. Barriss received a 20-year prison sentence. This is a record length for a swatting case.
The Wichita swatting case serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of such pranks. The incident not only claimed Finch’s life but also affected his family and the community.
Jason Cid, known as “King Cid,” executed a prank involving a false police report in 2022. Cid’s friend reported their car for “suspicious activity,” hinting at illegal substances. This led to a search. But after the inspection, the police found only Coca-Cola.
Authorities charged Cid with a third-degree felony for misusing 911 services. His bond was set at $2,500.
Cid’s case demonstrates the seriousness of misusing emergency resources like 911. Police take prank calls seriously, so even if intended as a joke, it can lead to felony charges.
Austin Goss, a TV reporter, made a prank call from the personal phone number of the governor of South Dakota. The governor himself did not authorize the call and said it had been hacked. The reporter used the site for pranks, with a threatening joke.
Goss was first charged with a small crime, which could lead to a year in jail and $2,000 in fines. Eventually, Goss admitted guilt to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct. He received a suspended sentence but lost his job at Dakota News Now.
The Goss incident shows how prank calling can become unethical and illegal. This happens when it includes impersonation and threats.
Check out our article “Is Dumpster Diving Illegal in the US? What the Law Says“
If you still enjoy prank calls, follow these rules to keep away from legal problems:
If you get charged for a prank call, contact a criminal defense attorney right away. They will tell you how to proceed and represent you in court.
If prank calls are targeting you, you can take steps to protect yourself.
If you think a prank call is going too far or is a real threat, report it to the authorities. Contact your nearby police and give them all the important details about the call. They can guide you on the actions to take and help identify the individual responsible for the prank call.
So the question “Is prank calling illegal?” has a positive answer. Pranks can be illegal if they involve harassment, disorderly conduct, or abuse of emergency services. Depending on how serious and what kind of prank call you make, you could get fined, put on probation, or even sent to jail. Victims of prank calls have the right to report such calls.
If you get in legal trouble because of a prank call, talk to a criminal defense lawyer. They can provide expertise and help you get lighter sentences. Remember, a joke should bring joy, not become a problem for someone.
Prank calls can be illegal for both adults and children. But, in the case of minors, parents will be liable for their kids.
Calling random numbers is not illegal. But, the police can charge you with harassment if the calls continue too often or if they insult or threaten a person.
Yes, because each number has its ID, the police can track prank calls. Especially if they contain threats or are related to emergency services.
Yes, the police can arrest you and issue a misdemeanor penalty (up to $1,000 in fees and a year in jail). But if your call was to 911 or other emergency services, expect a criminal case. You can even get up to 10 years in prison for swatting.
To report an abusive prank call, contact the police or fill out a form at the Federal Communications Commission.