Dvorak was in rare form this week, as he writes something that reads more like an e-mail virus alert chain letter. http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2376702,00.asp

Read on for the money quote.

I’m immediately reminded of the online scams that took place during the modem era of communications. You’d be given a number to call, and it would actually be some sort of scam. The local number would connect to a BBS of some sort which would send a code back to the modem to turn off the speaker, so you couldn’t hear the modem disconnect and then redial a number in Bulgaria or some obscure island. You’d then be connected to a phone service that charged $100/minute for the connection. After racking up thousands and thousand of dollars in phone costs, you’d get the bill from your phone company for $30,000.

I was around during the modem era. I even remember that the Hayes command to turn off the speaker was AT M0. Except when it was AT L0. I remember a lot of now-useless information from those long-ago days.

And what I’m trying to figure out is how this is even possible. Because I remember hitting +++ in order to interrupt the modem and send commands to it. But that was the thing. If the modem on the other end transmitted +++ and an AT command, then the modem just sent it through as text. You could even see it at the end of a BBS session, when the remote end hung up. Some modems transmitted the commands to you before they realized that text was intended for them.

So I don’t know how this could work. A rogue BBS would have had to do the following:
1. send a +++ across to put the other modem into command mode
2. send an AT L0 M0 to turn off the speaker
3. send an AT H to hang up the phone
4. send an ATDT command to dial the BBS in Bulgaria or wherever.

Except step 1 is impossible, since Hayes commands have to come from the local host. A friend and I actually experimented with this 21 or 22 years ago because he was running a BBS and was paranoid that a rogue user might be able to lock up his modem.

And then of course step 3 makes step 4 impossible, because once you hang up the phone, the game’s over.

The only way I can see this being possible is through software. But in the BBS era, computers were single-tasking. And just dialing a phone number wasn’t enough to get your computer infected with a virus. You had to download something. Perhaps Dvorak is thinking of dialer malware, which was fairly widespread in the mid 1990s, but that was distributed over the Internet, not BBSs.

I know some of you were around in the BBS era too. Have any of you ever heard this rumor Dvorak speaks of, and any of its details?

In the BBS era that I remember, the phone companies were the ones who got scammed. Phone phreaking was real. You mostly hear about it today in passing, such as when people talk about Steve Wozniak’s blue box, built before he started building computers. But there were people doing it in the late 1980s and early 1990s too.  If anything, by then it was more widespread.

Maybe this is what Dvorak is thinking of: Phone phreakers getting caught, then slapped with $30K in unpaid long-distance charges.