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10 wacky IT office pranks

An office without practical jokes would be a mighty dull place to work. Luckily, legions of IT pranksters have kept things lively over the years.

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?

About

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.

35 comments
ron_whittaker
ron_whittaker

Over 30 years ago, when a Systems Analyst, in a productive shop, we had many, many opportunities to 'prank someone'. Each took time, and creative energy. Let alone the risk of impacting a fellow worker, losing team trust and always looking over your own shoulder. I'm impressed by any pranks that take very little time, are not likely to 'hurt' and/or may educate - example 9: Hard drive transplant and 'Lock your PC'. What have you been coding your time to?

juliekimjoyce
juliekimjoyce

Back in the days of '79 -on a bank of monitors - just swapping the keyboard with the next one along was simple, but surprisingly effective ... (this to an individual who had taken the literal kettle lead home for his own personal kettle, leaving us with nothing - times were hard back then - oh, how we laughed.)

broeren79
broeren79

a nice one is always to use a 30-minute or so wav-file as the shutdown-sound win windows, especially for laptop-users. It is always interesting to see the difference in patience that some colleagues display.

colin
colin

Hark back to the days of windows 3.11.. If you had a startup sound it had to complete playing before relinquishing control back to the user. We added the 60 second orgasm scene from "When Harry met Sally" to our manager's desktop. As it happens he had 3 visiting managers from head office who ended up outside the office laughing so hard that one neatly wet himself.

duane
duane

Many years ago when the company I worked for was using Novell, our VP of Engineering who was fairly computer literate installed a screenaver on my workstation which was a topless woman and the image scrolled from her waist to her face and all points in between. The problem was that several women in our office came to my office to drop off paperwork and saw this screensaver in action. When I returned to the building I was ordered into the owner's office to explain how I could subject him to sexual discrimination charges. As I was being raked over the coals, the VP came forward and admitted that it was a prank and he didn't realize that maybe others would see his handywork before I did. This was about 20 years ago and I still remind him every once in a while.

t.doel
t.doel

I workin Holand for a Dutch company. I am Welsh. I have a colleague who lives in London and is English. Needless to say we are at each other, especially during rugby season. All in good fun ofcourse. So one day he made this remark about us Welsh. So I decided to take action. I created an OU especially for him and set a few policies. The best one was that whenever he wanted to log on he had to press ctrl+alt+delete he would get a popup saying: "Wales rules, England really sucks. If you agree to this statement, please click OK". There was no other option for him than to click OK or else he just couldn't log on. I promised him I would get rid of that message if he wore something Welsh to a rugby match. He has a few Welsh friends who are still laughing. This was just one of the things he had to endure. Ofcourse he is a really cool guy and we still join eachother for a few pints now and then :)

wowcast
wowcast

Put a funny pic from facebook, or elsewhere as desctop background. should be really bizzare sincerly www.dota2hook.de

scott.dejong
scott.dejong

For one of our co-workers who prided himself as being the best prankster in the office, we pulled a trick on him that took him most of the day to figure it out. This was before dual monitors, we took a screenshot of his desktop and created a jpg. We then changed the wallpaper on his desktop to this screenshot and then hid all his icons and lowered the task bar on the screen. When he came back into the office we could here him moaning about nothing but the mouse working on his computer. He finally realized something was wrong when the clock on his screen said 9:15 and we were getting ready to leave for lunch at 12:00. After we came back from lunch we noticed that he had removed the wallpaper, but was still unable to find his icons. That task took him another hour before he found them. Needless to say, we never heard him brag about being the best prankster in office for a long time :)

Bogdan Peste
Bogdan Peste

A few years ago the security policies of the company I work for were very unrestrictive, allowing users to install their own applications (Messenger, Winamp, BSPlayer, etc.). The really frustrating thing, besides the obvious security issues, is that people would call me because their Yahoo Messenger or Skype application (that were used for personal use) had problems. Obviously, a lot of my time was spent debugging personal applications, so I told them that I would not offer helpdesk for non-business applications. To, ahem, test this new-found power I decided to prank a fellow co-worker. She was always playing music in Winamp, and whenever I went to assist on a helpdesk-related task, her playlist really annoyed me. So, a little "psexec and taskkill /f /im winamp.exe" and voila, the horror would stop :) . The really funny thing was that sometimes she had the music on so loud I could hear it from my desk, and I could also hear when it came to an abrupt stop when I killed the task. She didn't call me, of course. But she was really persistent, even trying to restart winamp about 10 times before finally giving up. I revealed what I had done after a couple of months, and she said she even tried to reinstall different versions of winamp about 3 times each :) . She really loved her music ! :P

chriscol91
chriscol91

One of the companies I used to work for had the policy of all users locking their computers if they left their desk, one individual who worked for me would just walk away from his desk and leave his computer wide open. He was warned time and time again so in the end I had enough, one day when he walked off leaving his PC wide open I jumped on it and sent myself a quite nasty email using a few well selected words about my management techniques and a few extra expletives. When he returned to the office I made sure I didnt call him in straight away but waited a little while. After about 40 minutes I called him in to explain his email to me, to which he denied all knowledge of, but as I explained to him because of the companies policy of locking your computer if you left your workstation the email couldnt have come from anyone else. From that day on his computer was always locked if he left his workstation.

drwain
drwain

Take a screen shot of a Windows 95 or Windows 97 login screen and apply that as the login background for Windows 7. One could even go as far as using an OSX login screen on a PC. Can't wait to try that one myself.

drwain
drwain

Apply a screen rotation to a users PC. When they call support and say "my screens upside-down" respond "so turn it around". It usually takes them a while to realise their leg is being pulled.

ceso_softdev
ceso_softdev

A long time ago we also took advantage of remote desktop access to pull a great practical joke on one of our managers. Back then, remote access was still not so wide spread, so we took advantage of that. When the manager in question was away in a meeting, we installed the remote access software. We all then agreed to pretend that we had installed some really advanced voice recognition software on his computer to save him valuable time. We all pretended to be very excited and jealous like any good nerd/geek should be in that situation. One of our guys sat at the next cubicle and took control of the computer and we waited for the manager to come out of his meeting. When He arrived we proceeded to do a demonstration of the capabilities of his newly enhanced PC. One of our guys sat at his chair and started to give ???voice commands" that where flawlessly executed by the PC, that is, the guy next door remotely controlling the PC. Needless to say, our manager got extremely excited about it, saying all kinds of praise to the accuracy of the voice recognition (practically impossible in a commercial PC at the time) and saying very effusive thanks to the team for the "gift". We stepped back and let him "test drive" his new toy. He sat down and started giving voice commands and.... nothing. His computer was suddenly un-responsive. He tried different tones, accents and inflections.... and nothing. He got really frustrated and aggravated??? We couldn???t hold it together anymore and exploded in laughter all over the place. There were people in the floor hugging their stomachs at how hard they were laughing. We revealed the prank and eventually he also started laughing like crazy. Almost 12 years after that we still give him a hard time about it. Cheers!

aiellenon
aiellenon

windows 7 (and probably vista) prompt the user to force close the shutdown sound (I think, maybe it was ubuntu... I have forgotten now, but it actually asks you to close the shutdown sound)

niels.hr.hansen
niels.hr.hansen

If you can succeed in recording the file without a microphone attached its even better.

chris
chris

The best part of this one is that by the time they restarted the computer, they forgot about the prank, and have to listen to it again when they shut down. Windows 98 unfortuanately cut the sound off after a few seconds.

APSDave
APSDave

I pulled something like this on someone as well. Used GP to force his wallpaper to be a Strawberry Shortcake image and he wasn't able to change it

SouthBayTechWriter
SouthBayTechWriter

I got fired for that prank. A co-worker left his pc logged in, so I got in early on April 1 and did that to his logged in computer. He was furious in 10 minutes, so I fixed it and tried the make him see the funny - but nope. Manager fired me the next day.

aiellenon
aiellenon

I used to work at a helpdesk and we did this to all the new people who forgot to lock their system when getting up. One time our team lead went into a side office (just out of sight of his computer) and did not lock it, we managed to do this to him, then lock his screen and get back to our seats before he got back. He was REALLY pissed, he removed his admin share from the C drive and locked the screen, then told us he would be back from a meeting in an hour and if it wasn't fixed we were fired! being the good prankster I had a windows password recovery tool on USB and was able to get back into the computer. Never found out if he was serious about firing us (4 people involved on a 16 person team).

ksawatzke
ksawatzke

A friend was out of his office w/ open computer... went in and made a desktop folder named "Porn". Took a screen shot of it, removed the Porn folder and made the screen shot the background. Try as he might, everything worked normally except he couldn't remove that Porn folder for several hours.

yawningdogge
yawningdogge

I can't believe this one took so long to surface. It should have made #1 on the list as far as I'm concerned.

wrhpiano
wrhpiano

I am a teacher. In our district, you can get a one-day suspension without pay for leaving a computer unlocked. I believe it's so anyone caught accessing inappropriate websites won't escape punishment by saying someone else was using their account. Of course the consequence of accessing porn on a public school computer would be termination.

AttackComputerWhiz
AttackComputerWhiz

I had a co-worker who used to walk away leaving his IBM workstation (really old school) open with his messages up. Since we had to share the stations, it was an annoyance to the others who needed to use them. Finally, I sent out a message to our local distro list from his account telling people he was footing lunch that day, so bring all their receipts to him. Another message was sent from another conspirator letting people know it was a prank, but bring the receipts anyway and reference "his" message. He got the message really fast about leaving stuff open. People keep saying they have nothing in their email they are afraid for others to see. I tell them that doesn't matter because it is really about what others can do using their accounts. ;)

kschlotthauer
kschlotthauer

We did that all the time when I was working in Doc. Control....until one day one of our co-workers did a reply all to a "distribution list" of about 200 people....none with any authority....but, our manager (which usually would do it too), sent out an email saying that we immediately need to stop. The messages would usually say something embarrassing about leaving their computer open.

Burnsie61
Burnsie61

I did something similar using a dumb terminal on a VAX machine. The terminal had an additional memory module added to enable it to do some graphics work, and the memory module had a grill on the front to help cool it. For those of you that remember the VAX editor, you could easily create macros that worked in real time, and could be called up when starting the editor. So with a 10 minute macro written, and script printed and hidden, I started to speak to the terminal and it responded to my every command. It wasn't long before I had an audiance of amazed people looking at my new voice input module on my dumb terminal. Not bad tech for 1984.

MJSteklac
MJSteklac

My wife assigned me the task of buying a new minivan for her. She was aware of all the major features, but I found that I could control the stereo system with buttons mounted underneath the steering wheel. I told my family that everything on the stereo was controlled with voice commands. I showed them while driving along, I shouted "Volume UP!" while surreptitiously pushing the up volume button on the steering wheel. I convincingly showed them a variety of volume commands, changing stations, and changing modes before my oldest daughter spotted what I was doing and blew the whistle on my prank.

sstewa22
sstewa22

I heard about the same thing happening except it was with an expensive copier. Office personnel and a salesperson conspired to play a trick on one of the owners and during a demonstration told him it was a "voice-enabled" copier (1994). The saleperson would say, "make 2 copies", and press the button on the side to make the copies out of sight of the owner. The owner got all excited and wanted to try it, and kept yelling at the printer to make copies and nothing came out. Everyone in the office started laughing after awhile and the owner stormed out of the office when he realized it was a prank. He eventually got over it.

JJFitz
JJFitz

You should have had the computer tell him to say please before every command and thank you after each command was executed. Or tell him to speak louder. :)

ceso_softdev
ceso_softdev

I forgot to mention the one thing that turned his anger into laghter. Once we revealed the prank, he felt like the biggest fool in the world when he realized that there wasn't even a microphone installed on his PC.

VPerkins2
VPerkins2

I think he meant to say, "nearly wet himself."

kschlotthauer
kschlotthauer

OMG.....that is classic....I might try that on my kids computers!

KCake
KCake

Where I worked we had the same policy (at least in IT). Many of the guys would forget to lock their machines when they walked away. We used to send emails out on their behalf, change their screen saver, or wallpaper to some sick image, or add audio or video files to their run or runonce in the registry. The fun part about that was they didn't even know they were pranked until they restarted their computer.

Snak
Snak

It conjures up so many possible pictures :)