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542.402. Penalty for illegal wiretapping, permitted activities.


Penalty for illegal wiretapping, permitted activities.


542.402. 1. Except as otherwise specifically provided in sections542.400 to 542.422, a person is guilty of a class D felony and uponconviction shall be punished as provided by law, if such person:


(1) Knowingly intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures anyother person to intercept or endeavor to intercept, any wire communication;


(2) Knowingly uses, endeavors to use, or procures any other person touse or endeavor to use any electronic, mechanical, or other device tointercept any oral communication when such device transmits communicationsby radio or interferes with the transmission of such communication;provided, however, that nothing in sections 542.400 to 542.422 shall beconstrued to prohibit the use by law enforcement officers of bodymicrophones and transmitters in undercover investigations for theacquisition of evidence and the protection of law enforcement officers andothers working under their direction in such investigations;


(3) Knowingly discloses, or endeavors to disclose, to any otherperson the contents of any wire communication, when he knows or has reasonto know that the information was obtained through the interception of awire communication in violation of this subsection; or


(4) Knowingly uses, or endeavors to use, the contents of any wirecommunication, when he knows or has reason to know that the information wasobtained through the interception of a wire communication in violation ofthis subsection.


2. It is not unlawful under the provisions of sections 542.400 to542.422:


(1) For an operator of a switchboard, or an officer, employee, oragent of any communication common carrier, whose facilities are used in thetransmission of a wire communication, to intercept, disclose, or use thatcommunication in the normal course of his employment while engaged in anyactivity which is a necessary incident to the rendition of his service orto the protection of the rights or property of the carrier of suchcommunication, however, communication common carriers shall not utilizeservice observing or random monitoring except for mechanical or servicequality control checks;


(2) For a person acting under law to intercept a wire or oralcommunication, where such person is a party to the communication or whereone of the parties to the communication has given prior consent to suchinterception;


(3) For a person not acting under law to intercept a wirecommunication where such person is a party to the communication or whereone of the parties to the communication has given prior consent to suchinterception unless such communication is intercepted for the purpose ofcommitting any criminal or tortious act.


    (L. 1989 H.B. 277, et al. § 2, A.L. 2002 S.B. 712)


    (1998) Communications between a cellular phone and a regular wire phone are wire communications within the purview of the wiretap law. Lee v. Lee, 967 S.W.2d 82 (Mo.App.W.D.).


What Is the Federal Law & the Penalty for Illegal Wiretapping?

By Roger Thorne, eHow Contributor


What Is the Federal Law & the Penalty for Illegal Wiretapping?thumbnail Illegal wiretapping is a serious crime.


Using recording devices to record conversations can be a tricky area when it comes to the law. Both states and the federal government have criminal laws that apply in wiretapping cases. These laws impose serious penalties for anyone convicted of illegally wiretapping or recording conversations.




        U.S. Code § 2510 et. seq. sets out the federal laws governing wiretapping. The federal laws on wiretapping apply whenever anyone records any conversation, whether it is oral, electronic or over a "wire." A wire communication is defined as any aural transfer aided by use of a wire, cable or other connection that allows two or more speakers to communicate between a point of origin and point of reception.



        Federal law, as well as most state laws, require one-party approval for anyone to legally record telephone or wire conversations. These "one-party consent" laws effectively make it possible for anyone participating in a conversation to record it without asking the other party's permission. If a party is not a part of a conversation, federal law requires that party receive a search warrant or the permission of all parties to record a conversation.



        It is illegal to record, use or disclose information through the use of an illegal wire tap or recording device. Anyone found guilty of such a crime faces criminal punishments of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each violation. Civil penalties also apply, including paying for the opposing party's attorney's fees and potential punitive damages.



        Federal law enforcement officers can record phone calls and use wiretap devices only after applying for and being granted a warrant by a federal judge or magistrate. Such warrants can only be granted if the law enforcement agency provides the judge with evidence showing probable cause to believe a crime has been or is about to be committed. Such search warrants are typically granted for a period of 30 days, after which they must be renewed by new showings of probable cause.



        While federal law allows one-party consent, not all states do. Some states require all parties to consent to the recording of any phone conversation. This complicates matters when dealing with federal wiretapping laws. For example, if one party in a phone conversation lives in a state where one-party consent is allowed but the other lives in a state where it is not, the laws of both states as well as federal law may apply.




    Cornell University Law School: U.S. Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 119

    Privacy Rights Clearinghouse: Fact Sheet 9: Wiretapping and Eavesdropping on Telephone Calls


    Photo Credit blue microphone image by Oleg Kulakov from;


Read more: What Is the Federal Law & the Penalty for Illegal Wiretapping? |



    What can I do if I think my phone is tapped?

    Who can legally monitor phone conversations?

    Can digital telephone communications be monitored?

    Is it legal to tape record telephone calls?

    Are there products I can buy to find out if my phone is tapped?

    Are there other ways people may be listening to my conversations?

    What about pen registers and trap and trace devices?

    Who are the most common targets of electronic eavesdropping & wiretapping?





    While relatively few legal wiretaps are authorized in the United States each year, improvements in technology have made it easier to illegally wiretap, record and eavesdrop on telephone conversations. People with sensitive jobs in business or government and those involved in high-stakes legal cases may have reason to be concerned about wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping.


    Wiretapping is any interception of a telephone transmission by accessing the telephone signal itself. Electronic eavesdropping is the use of an electronic transmitting or recording device to monitor conversations without the consent of the parties. Although many types of conversations may be subject to electronic eavesdropping, this fact sheet deals only with eavesdropping on telephone conversations.


    While this fact sheet deals only with wiretapping and eavesdropping on telephone conversations, wiretap laws are broader in scope.  Federal wiretap laws apply to oral, wire, and electronic communications.  However, the federal law does not currently regulate silent video communications, such as webcams or other video monitoring without an audio component.  A well-publicized case involving a school laptop in Lower Merion, PA highlights this limitation.


    In 2009, there were 2,379 criminal wiretaps authorized.  The majority were for mobile phones in drug cases.  Each authorized wiretap captured communications of an average of 133 individuals.  Each tap lasted an average of 42 days.  Information gathered from the wiretaps led to 4,537 arrests and 678 convictions.  These statistics do not include terrorism-related wiretaps or wiretaps conducted through the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program.

    What can I do if I think my phone is tapped?


    If you think your phone line is wiretapped, call your local phone company. Most phone companies will inspect your lines for wiretap devices free of charge. If a tap is found, the phone company will check to see if it is authorized. The phone company will alert you if the wiretap is illegal. It will also notify law enforcement and remove the device. However, you will not be notified if the wiretap is legal, made by law enforcement and authorized by a court. However, once a legal wiretap has been discontinued, the court must notify the tapped party that the wiretapping has taken place. Normally, this notice must occur within 90 days of the wiretap termination. (18 USC 2518(8)(d)).


    The government has been given narrowly confined authority to engage in electronic surveillance, conduct physical searches, install and use pen registers and trap and trace devices for law enforcement purposes under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (18 U.S.C. 2510 et. seq.).  Over the years, Congress has amended ECPA, sometimes in the interests of greater privacy and sometimes in the interest of more effective law enforcement or intelligence gatheri


    If you discover that someone has intentionally intercepted your private phone conversations, you may be able to take legal action. If you or the phone company find an illegal tap, you should notify local law enforcement officials. In addition, you may want to consult an attorney.


    It is a federal crime to wiretap without court approval, unless one of the parties has given their prior consent. It is likewise a federal crime to use or disclose any information acquired by illegal wiretapping. Violations can result in imprisonment for not more than five years; fines up to $250,000 (up to $500,000 for organizations); in civil liability for damages, attorneys’ fees and possibly punitive damages; in disciplinary action against any attorneys involved; and in suppression of any derivative evidence.


    Many people think if they hear noises on the phone line, like clicks, static or voices, that the line is tapped. Most wiretapping devices emit no audible sounds. If you hear others talking on your phone, you may simply be experiencing "crosstalk," a common phone problem. If you hear crosstalk or other sounds, call your local phone company's repair service and ask it to investigate the problem. Cordless telephones also may pick up others' conversations. This can happen if you and a neighbor have cordless phones which are tuned to the same channel. (See PRC fact sheet no. 2, "Wireless Communications: Cordless/Cellular Phones and Pagers.")

    Who can legally monitor phone conversations?


    Federal law enforcement officials may tap telephone lines only after showing "probable cause" of unlawful activity and obtaining a court order. This unlawful activity must involve certain specified violations. The court order must limit the surveillance to communications related to the unlawful activity and to a specific period of time, usually 30 days. (Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 18 USC 2516)


    Until recently, California wiretapping laws were much more restrictive, prohibiting all wiretaps without the consent of all parties to the conversation, except for investigations involving certain controlled substances violations (California Penal Code 629; 629.02; 631). However, as of January 1, 1996, the State Legislature amended this law to allow state law enforcement officials to obtain wiretaps in investigations involving murder, solicitation to commit murder, aggravated kidnapping, crimes involving bombings, and conspiracy to commit any of these offenses. This law is intended to bring California wiretapping law more in line with the federal law. (California Penal Code 629 et. seq.)


    Courts have held that the California law does not apply to wiretaps by federal agents authorized by a valid federal warrant. For example, federal agents may go to federal court and obtain a warrant to place a wiretap in California, even though state officials may be barred by state law from obtaining a wiretap under similar circumstances.


    Both federal and California law enforcement officials may eavesdrop on and record telephone conversations without a court order under the so-called "one party consent provision" (18 USC 2511(2)(s); California Penal Code 633). In other words, if state or federal authorities have the consent of one party to a conversation (such as a government informant), the conversation may be monitored. This provision applies only to eavesdropping by law enforcement officials.


    Telephone company employees may listen to your conversations when it is necessary to provide you with service, to inspect the telephone system, to monitor the quality of telephone service or to protect against service theft or harassment. Also, employers may monitor and even record their employees' phone conversations with few restrictions (18 USC 2511(2)(a); California Penal Code 631(b)). (See PRC fact sheet no. 7, "Employee Monitoring: Is There Privacy in the Workplace?")

    Can digital telephone communications be monitored?


    In 1994 Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, also known as the Digital Telephony Act (18 USC 2510-2522). The Act's purpose is to provide law enforcement officials with assurance that they will be able to "tap" or have access to the content of any communications incorporating new digital technology. These digital transmissions include both voice communications transmitted in digital format as well as transmissions of text and data between computers using a modem.


    Traditionally, law enforcement agents accessed telephone communications by tapping the line and simply listening in on the conversation. However, digital communications services generally convert telephone conversations and other transmissions to a digital code that is impossible to "listen in" on. The Digital Telephony Act requires all telephone companies to make digital communications available to law enforcement officials in the same way that traditional voice transmissions are currently accessible.


    This law specifically states that it does not alter or expand the current ability of investigators to conduct a wiretap. It merely allows them to access digital communications in the same manner as voice communications once a legal wiretap has been authorized. Furthermore, telephone companies are not required to decrypt encrypted (i.e. scrambled) communications unless the telephone company itself provides the encryption service. Finally, the federal government must reimburse the telephone companies for many of the modifications necessary for compliance with the law.


    Users of online services such as America Online, CompuServe or the Internet should note that these services are not subject to the provisions of the Digital Telephony Act. (For more information, see PRC fact sheet no. 18, "Privacy in Cyberspace: Rules of the Road for the Information Superhighway.")


    Users of Internet telephony services such as should note that most of these services are not subject to the provisions of the Digital Telephony Act.  The Act contains an exemption for "information services" (i.e., the Internet),  VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) services take many forms, from the peer-to-peer model used by Skype to others in which the path between the subscriber and the telephone central office is traditional telephony but Internet protocol (IP) communications are used throughout the remainder of the call's path. Most IP communications do not behave as telephone calls.  Peer-to-peer VoIP systems use a centralized mechanism to provide the communicating parties with each other's IP addresses but rely on the Internet for actual communication. Thus, there is no central point at which a wiretap could be authorized.

    Is it legal to tape record telephone calls?


    The state and federal laws mentioned above deal primarily with wiretapping and eavesdropping by law enforcement officials. In addition to these laws, both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) have acknowledged the importance of privacy in telephone conversations by placing additional restrictions on tape recording such conversations.


    California law does not allow tape recording of telephone calls unless all parties to the conversation consent (California Penal Code 632), or they are notified of the recording by a distinct "beep tone" warning (CPUC General Order 107-B(II)(A)(5)). However, tape recordings can legally be made if an individual or members of one's family are threatened with kidnapping, extortion, bribery or another felony involving violence. The person receiving the threats can make a tape recording without informing the other party. (California Penal Code 633.5)


    Federal law allows recording of phone calls and other electronic communications with the consent of at least one party to the call. A majority of the states and territories have adopted laws based on the federal standard. But 12 states, including California, require the consent of all parties to the call under most circumstances. These are are California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington. For a state-by-state guide to taping laws, including a discussion of federal law and references to caselaw, see the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press guide,


    These laws and regulations generally do not apply to law enforcement investigations, emergency situations or patently unlawful conversations. The FCC has acknowledged that these regulations are difficult to enforce, and violations are virtually impossible to detect. Consumers should not be lulled into a false sense of security that their call is private simply because there is no notice of recording.


    Furthermore, it is not always clear which law, state or federal, applies to specific situations. This depends on where the call originates, why the recording is being made and who places the call. To stay within the law, you may wish to refrain from taping calls you make, but be aware that in certain situations others may be recording your conversations with them.


    The California Supreme Court held in Kearney v. Salomon Smith Barney, Inc., 137 P.3d 914 (2006) that out-of-state businesses are prohibited from monitoring or recording their telephone calls with California residents, even if that conduct takes place in any of the states where only one party's consent is required to lawfully monitor or record a telephone call. Thus, California 's two-party consent law governs any calls between a company's location in a one-party consent state and customers located in California .

    Are there products I can buy to find out if my phone is tapped?


    No. Devices can be purchased which claim to detect phone taps. Let the buyer beware. Experts say there are no devices that can reliably detect any current wiretapping technology.


    To be successful, a "tap detector" must detect a change in the electrical characteristics of a telephone line, such as a voltage drop, or a change in the characteristics of signals that are transmitted over a telephone line. Most of the wiretapping techniques used today, whether authorized for law enforcement use or conducted illegally, do not produce changes in line or signal characteristics. 


    "Tap detectors" may be able to detect someone "listening in" by picking up an extension phone, and may be able to detect someone cutting a telephone line.  However, neither of these occurrences may be considered a "wiretap," strictly speaking, and neither of these occurrences is necessary in order for someone to connect a wiretap to your line.  Those with experience in telephone technology advise consumers to disregard the claims of companies that sell "tap detectors.

    Are there other ways people may be listening to my conversations?


    Yes. The determined eavesdropper will find a variety of sophisticated electronic surveillance and listening devices on the market. Also, radio scanners are available which can monitor cordless and cellular phone conversations, baby monitors and home intercom systems, especially older devices that use analog technology rather than digital signals .  (See PRC fact sheet no. 2, "Wireless Communications: Cordless/Cellular Phones and Pagers.") Long distance calls which travel by microwave or satellite links are also susceptible to monitoring.

    What about pen registers and trap and trace devices?


    Certain devices, when attached to a phone line, allow the numbers of incoming or outgoing calls to be recorded. A "pen register" is a device which records numbers dialed out on the telephone line to which it is attached. A "trap and trace device" records the numbers from which any incoming calls are dialed.


    According to federal and California law, a court order must be obtained before these devices may be attached to a phone line (18 USC 3121; 69 California Attorney General Opinion 55). However, telephone companies may use these devices without a court order to protect against theft or fraudulent use of the telephone service, or to protect customers from harassment.


    These devices may only be used to obtain the number of the calling party.  Neither device is capable of recording the content of a conversation.   The use or installation of pen registers or trap and trace devices by anyone other than the telephone company, service provider, or those acting under judicial authority is a federal crime, punishable by imprisonment for not more than a year and/or a fine of not more than $100,000 ($200,000 for an organization). There is no accompanying exclusionary rule, however, and consequently a violation of section 3121 will not serve as a basis to suppress any resulting evidence.

    Who are the most common targets of electronic eavesdropping & wiretapping?


    If you are in a position where others might benefit from listening to your conversations, you may be a target of electronic eavesdropping or wiretapping. For example, if other companies could experience financial gain from hearing details about your work, you run a higher risk of being wiretapped or "bugged." People involved in controversial political activities and high-stakes legal proceedings are also at risk of being the target of illegal monitoring and eavesdropping.


    If you believe your phone conversations are being illegally monitored, you may want to consult an attorney and/or a private investigator. Be sure to check for references and proper licenses. Get all fees and conditions in writing before acquiring the assistance of a legal or investigative service.


    Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many states have passed laws that expand their wiretapping authority. A comprehensive listing of state laws is available in the Congressional Research Service Report "Privacy: An Overview of Federal Statutes Governing Wiretapping and Electronic Eavesdropping" (December 3, 2009) ( at Appendices A-E.

    The 2008 report of the U.S. Department of Justice provides an in-depth analysis of the number and types of wiretaps conducted by federal and state law enforcement. The overwhelming majority of federal and state wiretaps were for cell phones in drug cases. See the report for the details.




    Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press


    For a 50-state listing of taping consent laws, "A Practical Guide to Taping Conversations" visit


    To obtain a printed copy of the RCFP's state-by-state guide, ($3.00), contact:

    Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

    1101 Wilson Blvd. #1100

    Arlington, VA 22209

    Phone: (703) 807-2100


    Congressional Research Service Report


    "Privacy: An Overview of Federal Statutes Governing Wiretapping and Electronic Eavesdropping" (December 3, 2009) 




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We are a nationally recognized consumer education and advocacy nonprofit dedicated to protecting the privacy of American consumers.


    » How to Check for Wire Tapping on Landline Phones

updated June 03, 2011



If someone listens in to your phone conversation, without your permission, it is a crime punishable by law as well as a gross invasion of your privacy. You can check whether someone is listening in to the conversations on your landline telephone (aka "wire tapping") by employing methods available to consumers. You will need special equipment as well as household tools. Your phone will not be damaged in any way by checking to see if wire tapping is in effect.



    Moderately Easy



Things You'll Need


    Phone tap detector

    Telephone cord, 6 feet

    Phillips screwdriver



1.       Check the landline telephone for a wire tapping device by first unscrewing the earpiece from the phone's handset. Lift out the speaker from inside the handset to see if there is an electronic device attached to the wiring on the back. Repeat this procedure with the other end of the handset.

2.        Place the phone tap detector next to the phone. Remove the telephone cord from the phone's base and plug it into the "Tel in" socket on the detector. Plug a telephone cord between the "Tel out" socket on the detector and the socket on the phone's base. Monitor the light on the detector to see if the green LED goes out or changes to red as this indicates that the phone is being tapped.



3.     Inspect the telephone connector block the phone is wired to by first removing the telephone cord from the telephone wall plate. Remove the screws from the wall plate with a Phillips screwdriver and pull the plate off. Aim a flashlight at the connector block inside the wall. Count the number of wires that are wound around each screw on the connector block; if more than one wire is wrapped around each screw, a wire tap is being done through a physical wiring that has been added to the block.


Read more: How to Check for Wire Tapping on Landline Phones |