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Is Prank Calling Illegal?

man holding telephone
Prank calls are prohibited in most states.

Prank Calling: Innocent or Harmful?

Let’s face it. Most people in their lives, particularly in childhood and teen years, have prank called someone at least once. 

Most people don’t see an issue with a harmless prank call, whether it’s to your favorite local restaurant, another business, or a classmate.

Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that prank calls can be more harmful than generally thought. There are laws in place that can get you in serious trouble if you’re caught prank calling someone or a business.

woman taking call
Prank calls aren’t necessarily as harmless as many people believe.

Even if the call starts as a harmless prank phone call, it can go wrong and result in a misdemeanor or felony offense. 

So, next time you think about prank calling someone, learning what types of prank calls might get you in trouble might have you rethinking your decision.

Offenses You Can Be Charged With For Prank Calls

Laws surrounding prank phone calls vary from state to state, and while most prank calls when you’re relaying a silly joke like “is your refrigerator running?” won’t be cause for legal action, things can take a turn for the worse.

There is a thin line between what’s deemed a annoying prank call and harassment.

Below you’ll find a list of offenses other people have previously been charged with resulting from a prank call. Remember that the specific laws surrounding these might vary depending on where you live.


The line between a somewhat obnoxious prank call and a harassing prank call is thin. While it’s impolite to call someone at an outrageous hour, it’s not necessarily illegal. 

Now, when you accompany that prank telephone call with harassing remarks or threats, then it can be considered telephone harassment and subject to punishment, especially when the calls are repeatedly being made.

According to California Penal Code 653m, intentionally making phone calls to annoy, use obscene language, or threaten to kill or cause bodily harm is a misdemeanor offense with a jail term of up to six months or a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

In Nevada, making annoying phone calls are not actually prohibited, but under Nevada Revised Statute 201.255, making a telephone call with the intent to annoy is punishable by up to six months in prison and/or up to $1,000 in fines.

Disorderly Conduct

Depending on what state you live in, disorderly conduct will have different meanings. Some states define it as someone using abusive or obscene language with the intent to upset another.

drunk man
Disorderly conduct is often associated with being drunk and disorderly, however, prank calls may also fall into this category of offense.

If you prank call someone and relay a silly joke that doesn’t use offensive or abusive language, it might be annoying but hardly considered disorderly conduct. 

When you call someone, even if you believe it’s a joke, but the joke includes abusive and offensive language, it might be considered disorderly conduct in criminal law. 

A prank caller can be legally punished if the one being negatively spoken to decides to pursue action.

Hate Crimes

Hate crimes and harassment often go hand in hand. Not all harassment is a hate crime, however pretty much all hate crimes are a form of harassment. Hate crimes are illegal in the United States, regardless of where you live within the country.

Hate crime rally
Many are unaware that a prank call can be deemed a hate crime.

What makes a prank call a hate crime rather than just general harassment is that the caller purposely calls to attack the victim based on their religion, sexual orientation, race, etc. 

Examples of prank calling that could be considered a hate crime are using derogatory racial slurs.


Wiretapping is when you record a phone conversation with someone without their consent. 

In some states, both parties need to be aware that a recording is happening, but in others, as long as one party on the line knows, it’s not technically illegal.

Phone recording
Federal law (18 U.S.C. § 2511) requires one-party consent for a phone call or conversation to be recorded, although certain state laws require all party consent.

Sometimes, teenagers will record a prank call because the joke is funny or because they want to remember the other person’s reaction, but this can be dangerous depending on where they live. 

Wiretapping gets even more illegal when the phone call recording is accompanied by harassing statements, threats, or hate crimes.

Bomb Threats

Bomb threats are an automatic illegal offense in the United States. While many bomb threats aren’t legitimate, when they happen, first responders need to take appropriate action in the event that it is serious.

This causes mass panic and emotional turmoil for everyone involved. Depending on the severity of the bomb threat, law enforcement might bring criminal charges against you.

Prank Calling 911

Children in the United States learn about the importance of calling 911 from an early age.

emergency response vehicles
Prank calling 911 can lead to serious legal consequences.

Unfortunately, many kids and teens don’t fully understand the extent of what prank calling 911 could mean. It’s illegal to prank call 911, no matter if you believe the phone call is an innocent prank or not.

Prank calling 911 is more likely to result in a criminal offense being committed than other kinds of prank calls. 

Even though the United States takes hate crimes, harassment, and threats seriously, not everyone chooses to press charges. But, by calling 911, it’s much more likely that the caller will face legal consequences.


Depending on what the prank call to 911 consists of, the severity of the punishment can change depending on your state. 

For example, in California, penalties for various 911 prank calls can range from $1,000 to $10,000 in fines or several months to years in prison.

Under the Virginia penal code, making an unnecessary 911 call can result in a $2,500 fine, a year in jail, or both.

Punishment depends heavily on whether law enforcement and medical personnel are dispatched to the scene, if SWAT is involved, etc. Generally, the more personnel dispatched, the heavier the penalties will be.

What To Do If You’re a Victim of a Prank Call

Prank calls can be incredibly annoying and hurtful, depending on the context. If you’re a victim of a prank call or several, you can do a few things to hopefully stop the calls and even take legal action if you feel necessary.

law books
Prank call victims have recourse to the law.

First, if you are repeatedly subjected to telephone harassment, you can block the number and hope the phone calls stop. If the calls continue after blocking the number, that’s phone harassment, and you can speak with law enforcement.

Even if a single call is threatening, harassment, or a hate crime, you’ll want to report it to law enforcement immediately and seek legal counsel so that you can get the justice you deserve. 

Prank calling someone or a business can seem fun when you’re a child or teenager, but participating in this trend has ramifications. Depending on the context of the call, prank calls can be illegal.

You might face legal action if the call is harassing or threatening, a hate crime, or to 911. If you feel like you’ve been the victim of a severe prank call, seek law enforcement and legal help as soon as possible.

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