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Telephone Trespassing : Think only kids make prank calls? Now grown-ups are dialing, baiting their prey and taping what follows. And thousands collect the recordings.

June 03, 1993|MARK EHRMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Shut Up Little Man," has been illustrated for a comic book, issued on a recording sold by Tedium House in San Francisco, and performed on stage in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It will be revived here Aug. 26-29 at the Kim Light Gallery here.

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One group of callers seems poised to take the phenomenon to the bank. They are the New York-based Jerky Boys, so named because they call their prey "jerky." Over the past six years, the Boys have developed a panoply of characters who answer classified ads.

After seeing their tapes circulate via bootlegging for several years, the Boys began marketing their tapes in 1992 through a 900 line.

Typical of their work: Jerky Boy Johnny B phones a personal-injury attorney. He says he drove his motorcycle up on the sidewalk and injured some pedestrians. The lawyer refuses the case. "Well, can I sue you?" Johnny B asks, to keep him on the line.

The lawyer snatches the bait. "Sue me?" Why do you want to sue me?" The lawyer remains on the line as Johnny B vows, "The people you handle, I will sue them, too."

In April, Select Records, a division of Atlantic, released a Jerky Boys CD. The disc rocketed into the mainstream, selling 75,000 copies in the first month.

It is legal to tape telephone calls without the consent of the other party in New York, but the issue of harassment remains. Asked why a mainstream record company would release an album of what many would call victimization by telephone, Wyatt Cheek, Select vice president of promotion and marketing, says: "The notion that people don't like it and find it repellent is hypothetical.

"I have not experienced that, and the Jerky Boys have not experienced that," he says. "This has been called by some the most-copied underground tape ever. When you have that kind of response, it doesn't suggest that people find it irritating and abusive. It suggests that it's something people enjoy and want to be a part of."

According to Prof. Mark F. Grady, who teaches intellectual property and torts law at UCLA School of Law, victims of pranksters who find their voices being sold in record stores probably don't have any legal redress.

"I'm not optimistic that people who had the pranks played on them could sue," Grady says. "It would be difficult to argue that there would be a copyright infringement, because it would be hard for them to assert copyright on their informal remarks."

Norma Bell, an attorney with the Federal Communications Commission, says federal law allows the taping of phone conversations with the consent of only one party. California and 14 other states require prior consent by both parties or alerting both parties with a beep tone every 15 seconds.

Despite the proliferation of tapes, harassment by pranksters seems to have flown beneath law-enforcement and phone-company radar.

"It hasn't come up, to my knowledge," says Denise Davis, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office. "We would have to review a case before making a determination as to whether it's in our scope of authority to move forward."

Pacific Bell spokeswoman Linda Bonniksen said she has never heard of the circulation of prank tapes. Mike Murray of GTE says his company, too, is unaware of any tapes.

While hanging up is the recommended first line of defense, new telephone technologies may frustrate pranksters.

"In the last couple of years, there's been technology developed that would allow customers to block calls from (certain) telephone numbers," says Bonniksen. Customers may also be able to order services that identify the numbers of callers or call the numbers back. One service can send a caller's telephone number to a sealed data base that local police can access if a customer files a complaint.

"There will always be ways to get around things," responds one prankster. "As long as there are telephones and stupid people, there will always be prank phone calls."

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