A proper tech prank is a playful problem–mischievous rather than malicious. We’ve got a few quick tricks that you pull off with just a few minutes of access to your victim’s gadgets.
1. Mess With the Desktop
No prank guide would be complete without the classic desktop-picture switcheroo: take a screenshot of their desktop (for Windows 7 or Vista, type Snipping Tool in the search box, or use the Print Screen key in XP), right-click on the desktop and choose the Personalize menu to bring up the Personalization control panel. Just change their desktop picture to the screenshot you took, right-click on the desktop again, go to the View menu and uncheck “Show Desktop Icons”. Nothing will look different, but none of the “icons” on the desktop will respond.
Pranksters looking for more shock value can search for “Broken LCD” via Google Image Search and pull up several convincing images of broken LCD screens. Set it as their new desktop and watch the stress level spike when they suddenly think their monitor has been wrecked–and again when they realize it was a joke. Bonus points for getting this on a laptop, as notebook LCDs cost more to replace.
If someone tries this on you, you could just lock your computer (Windows + L) when you’re away from the desk, but that’s no fun. Instead, just glue down all the items on their (physical) desktop so they know how you feel.
2. Sabotage the Keyboard
Unlike the desktop picture pranks, keyboard-related gotchas are best executed with some subtlety–you want the target to realize slowly that they’ve been had.
The Region and Language control panel lets you change the keyboard’s software layout to anything the user has installed, including certain European configurations that are almost like the standard English (U.S.) layout–French, for example, is very similar except for the placement of a couple key letters. Open up the Region and Language control panel, then click the Keyboards and Languages tab, Change keyboard, Add… and pick your keyboard layout of choice. You’ll also want to hide the language bar so it’s not immediately obvious; click the Language Bar tab and choose Hidden to conceal the evidence.
Microsoft Word’s AutoReplace function is a great spot to look for potential pranks, too: in Word Options, Proofing, AutoReplace you can specify certain words to be automatically replaced by another string of characters. While you could lean to the obnoxious and juvenile, I prefer to throw minor typos (“definately” instead of “definitely”) or accidentally repeated words (“the” becomes “the the”) to throw the hapless victim off slowly.
If you’re the target of this trickery, pop the perp’s vowel keys off their keyboards with a pen or a screwdriver and mail them to the country that corresponds to your keyboard setting.
3. Prank the Phone
Phones are always ripe for a prank or two, but we’ve got a few suggestions that go above and beyond renaming contacts.
Our first phone prank comes courtesy of smartphone specialist, Ginny Mies. First, get two phones and block their Caller ID. Then call two people–ideally two who know each other–and hold the phones up next to each other and orient them so they’re talking to each other (microphone to receiver). After they sort out the “No, you called me” bit and come to terms with a freak cellular “accident”, you’ll get to listen to the subsequent conversation.
Plenty of apps are out there to help you with your phone pranks, too. Start out by going to the Soundboard Archive for a list of dozens of collections of celebrity and pop-culture character sound bites, from George Takei to Hulk Hogan. Just remember that there’s a special place in Hell for those out there who prank-call service industry workers, and you’ll be fine. Also, pick up a Fake Call app for your smartphone of choice: Fake-a-Call Free (iPhone), Fake My Call ($3, BlackBerry), and Fake-a-Call Free (Android) all let you set up convincingly fake calls on your smartphone, so you can show your friends you got a call from U.S. President Barack Obama.
Tired of people playing with your phone? There are plenty of fake broken LCD desktop images for smartphones, too, and once the perp is done panicking about the prospect of paying for an unsubsidized iPhone they’ll never prank your phone again.
4. Manipulate the Mouse
Reader @edcomingatyou discreetly slipped a wireless mouse USB receiver into a coworker’s PC and remotely interfered with his clicks and cursor movements. It’s possessed!
Senior Editor Robert Strohmeyer suggests using a wireless USB remote presenter instead of a wireless mouse. Similar effect, but you don’t have to deal with potential device conflicts (some configurations don’t do well with two mice at once). Also, it’s more discreet than a mouse–you can even put it in your pocket and stand behind them while you mess with them.
If your neighbor is catching you with this one, play along. Pretend to call IT because your computer has been hacked and doesn’t work, and take a long lunch.
5. Switch the Operating System
When it comes to tech pranks, nothing will take your target out of their comfort zone like swapping their operating system out for a new one. However, installing a new OS is a pain when you want to actually use it, so save your prank time by burning a Linux boot CD (Knoppix, for example) and setting their computer’s BIOS to boot from a CD before looking on the hard drive for an OS. All of their data will be intact and untouched, of course–they’ll just have to get their work done in OpenOffice instead. Who knows? Maybe they’ll like it. Staff Editor Nate Ralph adds his own touch by gluing or duct-taping the optical drive door shut to prevent them from swapping the disc out. Alternately, you could opt instead to boot from a very, very small USB drive. (Bonus points if you use both the CD and the USB drive.)
On the other hand, if you’re the recipient of an unwelcome upgrade, thank them for going out of their way to install a new OS on your PC, then make their Windows Vista/7 PC look like Windows XP in all its garish neon glory, or switch them to the Windows Classic theme to bring them back to the Windows 95 days. Or, if they’re still running XP, just upgrade their PC to Vista. They’ll forgive you someday.