During the 20 years I have worked in IT, I've had the privilege of working with some exceptionally creative people. And sometimes, that creativity has been channeled toward devising elaborate office pranks. So I thought it might be fun to write about some of the best office pranks I've seen. Some of these are a bit dated, but they were so amusing I had to include them anyway.
1: The infamous BSOD screensaver
One classic gag that never gets old is the Blue Screen of Death screensaver. Sysinternals offers a free screensaver that simulates the Blue Screen of Death and a system reboot. The effect is quite convincing, and you can cause panic in unsuspecting victims by installing this harmless screensaver onto their computer when they aren't looking.
2: The Dvorak keyboard
Microsoft offers accessibility features to help those with physical difficulties take advantage of its operating systems. One of these accessibility features also has the makings of a great prank.
Although keyboards typically use the QWERTY layout, Microsoft provides alternate keyboard arrangements for those who have difficulties typing. One such layout, known as Dvorak, replaces QWERTY with some rather bizarre key arrangements. Loading a Dvorak driver onto a computer with a normal keyboard remaps all the keys, resulting in confusion and frustration for the unlucky soul who has to type on it. For more information about three Dvorak layouts (and how to implement them), see Microsoft's article Alternative Keyboard Layouts.
3: Carbon Copy
One of the first remote assistance applications to really work well was called Carbon Copy LAN. This utility worked similarly to many of the remote assistance utilities available today, except that it allowed the helpdesk to connect to someone's computer without their knowledge or consent.
When this utility was first made available, the company I worked for decided to do a pilot deployment to find out whether it would be practical for use by the helpdesk. But we didn't bother to tell anyone that we had installed the software on their computers.
As you might expect, a few friends received this utility. The IT staff had loads of fun connecting to those people's computers at random times and causing general pandemonium. Sometimes, we would connect and just begin hitting random keys. Other times, we'd backspace over what the person had just typed. And on a few occasions, we even went so far as to compose an email message on the victim's behalf. You have to remember that back then, nobody had seen remote assistance software before, so the victims had no idea what was going on. Most assumed they had a virus.
4: Styrofoam peanuts
At one company I used to work for, we routinely ordered computers and various parts from a local supplier. On one occasion, we had to order hard drives and upgrade components for nearly 1,000 PCs. All the components we ordered shipped in large boxes filled with Styrofoam peanuts.
After we had unpacked all the boxes, we were left with thousands and thousands of Styrofoam peanuts. One of the guys who worked for me decided to have a little fun with one of his buddies. It was a hot day, so his friend had left the windows open on his truck. My friend rolled up the passenger side window, but left the driver side window open. He then began funneling peanuts into the truck until the cab was filled all the way to the bottom of the driver's side window. At that point, he began shoving the Styrofoam peanuts over to the passenger side until that portion of the cab was filled to the ceiling. He then reached in and rolled up the driver's side window as far as he could from the outside of the truck and used the remaining gap to pack in as many more Styrofoam peanuts as he possibly could.
Needless to say, the victim was more than a little bit late going home that day. Three years later, when he decided to trade in his truck, he gave it a good vacuuming and found several leftover Styrofoam peanuts.
5: The leaning tower
I once worked with a guy who had an extreme addiction to Mountain Dew. During the course of a shift, he would routinely drink the better part of a case. So of course there were always lots of empties in the recycle bin.
Another friend of mine decided to take advantage of the situation one day while the Mountain Dew addict was in a meeting. He fished all the empties out of the recycle bin and constructed a giant tower of Mountain Dew cans on his friend's desk. Next, he took some fishing line and tied it to some of the cans on the bottom row of the tower and then used the fishing line and a few thumbtacks to make a trip wire. That afternoon when the guy came back to his desk, he tripped over the tripwire, which set off an avalanche of Mountain Dew cans. The falling cans made so much noise that everyone in the office came to see what had happened.
6: Winders 95
When I first got my start with technical writing, I was working for a company called The Cobb Group writing a journal about Windows 95. I wrote all the content using Microsoft Word, and that made me the victim of an IT prank.
Word contains an AutoCorrect feature that automatically corrects commonly misspelled words. A coworker snuck into my office while I was away from my desk and added a few extra entries to Word's AutoCorrect list. Every time I typed the phrase Windows 95, Word automatically changed it to Winders 95. My friend made several other changes to the AutoCorrect feature and even went so far as to add misspelled words to my spell checker.
At the time, I was up against a deadline and in a rush to get an article to my editor, so I didn't read over it as well as I should have. About 15 minutes after I turned the article in, I got a call from my editor asking me why I was suddenly writing like a hillbilly.
7: The Windows lock screen
One of the companies I used to work for had a policy that stated that everyone in IT had to use a password-protected screensaver that would lock their computer after a certain length of time. One of the developers in the company decided to exploit this policy to have a little fun.
He developed a small application that looked like the Windows lock screen. When his cube mate stepped away for a smoke break, the developer quickly installed the application onto his friend's computer before the screensaver could engage. He then disabled the screensaver and executed the application he had just written. When his friend returned, he thought that he was looking at a legitimate Windows password prompt. But when he entered his logon credentials, they were emailed to his cube mate -- who later used them to log on to his friend's computer after hours and redecorate his desktop.
8: Custom operating system
Back in the days of DOS, a friend and I discovered that you could use a hex editor to modify any of the messages that were displayed by the operating system. For example, it was possible to change error messages to say anything that you wanted, so long as you used the same number of characters as were included in the original message. (You could insert spaces at the end of the new message to fill in any gaps.)
We used our newfound knowledge to create our own custom system disk, which included a lot of rude error messages. We planted copies of the disk in a few unsuspecting people's computers, sat back, and waited for the phone calls from people wondering why their computers were suddenly insulting them.
9: Hard drive transplant
I used to work at a place in which all the users had been instructed to store their data on their local PCs. Of course, almost nobody ever backed up their data. One of the guys in the IT department decided to teach one of the users of lesson by removing his hard drive and replacing it with a drive that had gone bad. The next morning, the user went to boot the PC and received an error message. He frantically called the helpdesk assuming that all his data was lost. When the helpdesk technician went to the user's desk, he reinstalled the user's original hard drive and pretended to recover all the data. It was kind of a cruel trick, but the user ended up backing up his stuff after that.
10: Unauthorized upgrade
Without a doubt, the greatest IT prank I have ever been witness to occurred shortly after Windows 95 was released. The guy who was in charge of IT operations was adamant that Windows 95 would never be used. He made it clear that we would continue using Windows 3.1 indefinitely.
A good friend of mine (who did not work in IT) made a screen capture of a Windows 95 desktop and then configured every PC in his department to use the screen capture as the Windows wallpaper. When the IT director walked through the department he saw what he thought were about 50 desktops running Windows 95. Rather than taking the time to check things out, he angrily stormed off to HR to try to get everyone in the department fired. Not surprisingly, he ended up looking really silly once it was revealed that he'd gotten all worked up over harmless wallpaper.
Other crazy stunts?
What are the best pranks you've ever seen, perpetrated, or fallen prey to?
Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.