Prank calls are harmless and the most likely criminal law of prank calls is harassment. However, depending on the jurisdiction, other laws like disorderly conduct, wiretapping, etc. may apply to a prank call.
- A prank call is a type of nuisance call where the caller makes the call for fun, as a dare, or for any other reason
- Nowadays, most telephones, cell phones, and smartphones have caller IDs therefore now it is very easy to identify a prank call
- Depending on the state, prank calls can be illegal in some situations in the USA
- If the prank call is made to 911 or another emergency response number for fun then it will be considered as illegal
What is a Prank Call?
A telephone call will be considered as a prank call when the caller calls a person with the intent of playing a practical joke. Basically, a prank call is a type of nuisance call. A caller can prank a call for various purposes like for fun, as a dare, or for any other reason. A caller can pranks call anyone they know, or a business number, or just randomly dial a number. Years ago, it was very easy to prank call people because there was no way the receiver would know the number or person who was calling. Nowadays, most telephones, cellphones, and smartphones have caller IDs which makes it difficult to prank callers to remain anonymous.
When a Prank Call is Illegal in the USA?
In the USA, prank calls can be illegal in some situations. Each state in the USA has different laws but all the states prohibit making prank calls to annoy or harass someone. Depending on the state, making prank phone calls can be illegal if they intentionally:
- Harass, or
- Threaten the recipient.
Moreover, a prank call can also be considered illegal if –
- They amount to disorderly conduct,
- They are obscene,
- The prank caller records the call without the recipient’s consent, or
- The call is made to 911 or another emergency response number.
Most states apply general criminal laws to prosecute prank callers and the most commonly used laws are –
- Disorderly conduct,
- Domestic violence, or
But, there are few states available that have criminal statutes specially designed for the crime of prank phone calls. For example, California has its own prank calling the law, Penal Code 653m PC and it forbids these calls if they intentionally:
- Use obscene language,
- Threaten the recipient, the recipient’s family, or
- Make repeated calls in order to annoy or harass the recipient.
Violations of this law can be punished with:
- Up to 6 months in county jail,
- A fine of up to $1,000, and
- Misdemeanor probation, with a mandatory term of counseling.
Is It Illegal to Prank Call a Business?
In the USA, lots of states don’t distinguish between prank-calling individuals and prank-calling businesses. So, it means prank calling a business will be considered as a crime. Moreover, if someone, pranks orders over the phone then it will lead to liability. Here, California law for prank calls is an excellent example. The California prank call law disallows using offensiveness and making threats against individuals and businesses while in a call. However, the prohibition against repeated calls is only for individual recipients, not businesses.
Is Prank Calling 911 Illegal?
If you make prank calls to emergency numbers like 911 then it is definitely considered as a crime. In fact, prank-calling emergency numbers are far more likely to be a crime than other kinds of prank calls. Many USA states have specific laws that ban this kind of prank call. For example, in California a prank caller might face misdemeanor charges if their call results in, or court result in:
- The response of an emergency services vehicle, like a fire truck, ambulance, or police car,
- An evacuation, or
- The activation of the Emergency Alert System.
Punishment for this type of criminal offense carries up to:
- 1 year of jail time, and/or
- A $1,000 fine.
Moreover, the criminal charge might become a felony if:
- The caller knows that the report of the emergency is false,
- The prankster should know that the response to the telephone call is likely to cause great bodily injury or death, and
- The report does cause great bodily injury or death.
Convictions for these offenses carry up to:
- 3 years in prison, and/or
- A $10,000 fine.
Is It Illegal to Record a Prank Call?
Prank calls are mostly for fun and done as a joke. However, some prank callers record the conversation with the recipient without the recipient’s knowledge. In many states, this type of offense is considered wiretapping. Wiretapping refers to a process of illegally listening in on someone else’s phone conversation. In some states of the USA, call recording is legal if at least 1 party has consented to the recording. However, in other states, if both of the parties have consented then it is legal to record the phone call. In the USA, both parties must consent in 12 states –
- New Hampshire
California’s wiretapping law, Penal Code 631 PC, makes California a “2-party consent” state. It means everyone on the call should consent to the recording. Therefore, recording a prank call without the consent of the receiver will be considered as a crime of wiretapping. In California, if Wiretapping is pursued as a misdemeanor, then convictions carry up to:
- 1 year in jail, and/or
- $2,500 in fines.
On the other hand, if it is pursued as a felony, a conviction would carry up to:
- 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in prison, and/or
- $10,000 in fines.
***Reference: California Penal Code 653m PC.
Can Prank Calls Get You Arrested?
Though, prank calls are considered a normal crime but there are few occasions when a prank call could potentially get you arrested. They are –
- Disorderly Conduct
- Hate Crimes
- Obscene Calls
This is the most likely crime for a prank call that could get you arrested. There is a very fine line between an abhorrent prank call and a harassing prank call. Usually, it is unlawful to call an unknown person late at night and say something stupid. However, if you started to make a call every 10 minutes day after day then it will be considered as harassment and you might go to jail for this offense. Most of the time, people consider a prank call annoying but not worth pressing charges against. But if the prank call crosses the line then it will be considered as illegal harassment.
2. Disorderly Conduct
In many USA states, definitions of disorderly conduct include offensive and abusive language that is used to provoke anger in others. This is quite similar to harassment and it needs to be more severe than just a silly joke. Moreover, verbal abuse and other demeaning conduct are also considered as disorderly conduct and it might get you arrested. For example, in Minnesota, disorderly conduct includes “offensive, obscene, or abusive language tending reasonably to arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others” as well as some types of prank calls.
3. Hate Crimes
Hate crimes are quite similar to harassment but with some differences. The underlying motives of hate crimes are to abuse victims’ characteristics like their religion, race, national origin, etc. So, if you call someone and then you start mocking that person’s voice or nationality then it will be considered a hate crime and you might be get arrested for this offense.
In many states of the USA, call recording is a criminal offense and you can get arrested for it. If you record a call without the consent of the receiver then it will be considered as Wiretapping and it is punishable by law. Therefore, if you prank call someone for the sake of recording calls to share online then it will be considered a felony and you will be penalized for it.
5. Obscene Calls
If the prank call includes obscenity, then the prank caller will be charged under ordinances that bar obscene phone calls. For example, according to California’s penal code –
“Obscene or threatening phone calls are considered a misdemeanor and are punishable by up to one year in jail”
6. Invasion of Privacy
According to legal services company U.S. Legal Inc. invention of privacy is referred to as “the intrusion into the personal life of another, without just cause.” Though the invention of privacy is not a criminal offense but convicted in civil court can be substantial. In this situation, if the prank caller shares the audio clip online or offline then the victim of the prank call would be able to file a civil suit charging, claiming his or her privacy has been invaded.
I hope, you have found the above information helpful and get a clear idea about the legal issues of prank calling in the USA. If you have a further query about prank calling then look up the local laws in your jurisdiction or you can contact an Attorney for further information!
Last Updated on November 8, 2022 by Magalie D.
Magalie D. is a Diploma holder in Public Administration & Management from McGill University of Canada. She shares management tips here in MGTBlog when she has nothing to do and gets some free time after working in a multinational company at Toronto.