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Pranknet
Pranknet.jpg
Pranknet logo
Founded Early 2000s
In Canada
Years active Unknown
Membership 250
Criminal activities Telephone harassment, DDoS attacks, hoaxing, Social engineering

Pranknet is a Canadian-based anonymous prank calling virtual community responsible for damage to hotels and fast food restaurants of more than $60,000 as well as multiple instances of telephone harassment. It was founded by a man who later referred to himself as "Dex" (alleged to be a Canadian man named Tariq Malik[1]) in 2000.[2] The group has been linked to nearly 60 separate incidents.[3]

Posing as authority figures, such as fire alarm company representatives and hotel corporate managers, Pranknet participants called unsuspecting employees and customers in the United States and tricked them into damaging property, setting off fire sprinklers and other humiliating acts such as disrobing. Pranknet members can listen in real-time and discuss the progress together in a private chat room.[4]

A wave of the pranks across the United States prompted internal alerts by Choice Hotels, as well as advisories by the Orange County, Florida Sherriff's office, and others.[5] Law enforcement officials from a number of jurisdictions are currently investigating the various incidents, but no information has been given as to whether the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will begin an investigation.[3] The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been investigating the various incidents as well as the identity of "Dex".[2]

Contents

Technology

Pranknet participants use Skype to make their calls. As of 2009, Skype provides an uncontrolled registration system for users with absolutely no proof of identity, permitting users to use the system in an anonymous and difficult-to-trace manner.[6] Members chat before, during, and after each prank via Beyluxe Messenger, which is owned and operated outside North America. Audiences range from 40 to 200 people at any given time. Prior to using Beyluxe, Pranknet used Paltalk for its chats, however Paltalk banned Pranknet after a February 2009 KFC incident. After Pranknet users were banned from Paltalk, the company was subjected to multiple DDoS attacks.[4]

Pranks that create sufficient havoc are posted on YouTube.[7] Updates are also provided through a Twitter account.[8]

Key members

Pranknet participants were successful in maintaining anonymity until August, 2009 when The Smoking Gun published the names, biographies and locations of Pranknet’s founder Tariq Malik and a number of prolific members. Malik and other Pranknet members had regularly taunted victims and others, saying they were untraceable.[4]

Tariq Malik

Malik, age 25 in 2009, is unemployed and lives with his mother in a small apartment in Windsor, Ontario, a block from the Detroit River.[4][5] They moved there in late 2008. Neighbors have only seen him once or twice during this time and some did not even realize he lived there.[9] He claims that his father died around 2000 and that he has very little money. He steals Wi-Fi from his neighbors.[4] He regards his victims as brainless sheep.[4]

According to TSG, Malik is PrankNet leader "Dex" (a tribute to the character Dexter Morgan, a fictional serial killer).[4] However, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, "Dex" denied he was Malik (but confirmed he is Canadian).[10]

Officials in at least four U.S. States and six U.S. cities are considering charges against Malik and his possible extradition to the United States to face trial.[10]

William Marquis

Marquis, age 51 in 2009, lives in Scarborough, Ontario. Known as Hempster, he is Pranknet’s "second in command": Marquis pays expenses, solicits money for Malik, offers prizes to members who successfully game their victims, and enforces chat-room rules by kicking out rule violators. He was arrested in 1992 as part of a hydroponic marijuana growing ring; the charges were later dropped. He was convicted in 2004 for drunk driving and in 2005 for marijuana production.[4]

CBC News attempted to interview Marquis regarding these allegations, however he did not answer his door.[3]

James Tyler Markle

Markle, age 18 in 2009, lived in a trailer in rural Diboll, Texas with his mother and stepfather. He participates in Pranknet using the name "Prankster" and is one of the groups most prolific callers. He claims making the calls is his job.[4] Prior to The Smoking Gun story on August 4, Markle was already a person of interest in a Lufkin Police investigation involving a phone call to a local McDonald's.[11] The Smoking Gun used information from old MySpace and Facebook pages to confirm Markle’s identity. The Website also had people from the area identify Markle in photos.[12] The Smoking Gun also published official documents showing that Markle plead guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child in 2005, serving two years in a juvenile detention facility for raping a 5-year-old girl at a church in Diboll and then threatening to kill her if she told anyone about the incident.[13]

In an interview with The Lufkin Daily News, Markle denied that the person described on TSG was him, claiming instead it was another person called the Samoan Prankster.[11]

Markle was arrested on September 8, 2009, for a June 20 call targeting a McDonald's in Lufkin.[14] Markle confessed to the crime following his arrest, according to police. He was charged with felonies in two separate states: for making a felony terroristic threat in the Lufkin McDonald's case and for terrorizing and criminal damage (both felonies) in a separate incident involving a Wendy's restaurant in Gretna, Louisiana. The terrorizing felony in Louisiana carries a maximum 15 years imprisonment.[15] He was later extradited to Louisiana as a result of the charges filed in the Gretna incident.[16]

Shawn Powell

Powell, age 24 in 2009, was a Pranknet regular from Baytown, Texas who goes by the name Slipknotpsycho. In 2002 he was found guilty of indecency with a minor (for taking nude photos of an 8-year-old female relative), a felony that put him in custody for 13 months. In 2003 he was convicted of marijuana possession. Powell specializes in racist and threatening calls.[4] He also organized a call to be placed to his own mother in which she was told her name was found on a murder victim, possibly a relative, and asked to come to the police station.[4]

On August 26, 2009, Powell was charged with criminal mischief for his part in a hoax call to the Baytown Arby's restaurant, resulting in the fire suppression system being activated and resulting in $1350 worth of damage.[17] The damage estimate barely missed the minimum required for a felony ($1500). Although his accomplice in the misdemeanor, Markle, lives in Texas, Powell claimed in the police report that his accomplice lived in "western Canada".[17]

LeeAnn Jordan

LeeAnn Jordan, age 28, lives in Lewiston, Maine with her children and goes by the online name Veruca. Her PayPal account has been used by Malik to receive international money transfers. She also paid for a Paltalk account used by a Canadian suspect in the KFC prank, which led to a police interview.[4]

Former members

Jericho Batsford

Jericho Batsford, age 40, of Knoxville, Tennessee was a Pranknet regular and frequent caller until June, 2009. She left the group after the incident in Conway, Arkansas (listed below) and contacted local FBI agents.[1] She told them she knew Dex’s identity to be that of Malik (a man in his 20s living with his mother in Windsor, Ontario)[1], and that he was responsible for many incidents.[8] In response to her defection, Pranknet members have constantly harassed her home and her workplace via Skype. Malik told members to be patient, that she would not answer the phone and let them get to her, and to instead "get her later on down the road, when she least expects it."[4]

Batsford participated in some phone pranks under the name "jericoNtn", but became disillusioned when she witnessed members encouraging children under the age of 18 to make bomb threats.[1]

Identities revealed

Pranknet members were very careful to hide details about their lives and locations. They bragged about their ability to remain cloaked. In an interview with The Smoking Gun on June 17, 2009, Malik exhibited no worries about ever being tracked down or caught. In a July co-interview with Markle, he boasted: "It's too difficult to find me. I'm a ghost on the Internet. I do pretty much everything I can to keep anything out of my computer that would lead it back to my actual computer. I'm not a stupid individual, like I said."[4]

In June 2009, The Smoking Gun launched an investigation that lasted nearly two months and included travel to Windsor and a stakeout outside Malik’s mother’s home. Finding the exact location proved to be easy: Smoking Gun editor William Bastone emailed the person who had been referring to himself as "Dex" for an interview. Malik eventually called Bastone via Skype. During their conversation, Bastone provided Malik with URLs of some Smoking Gun news items. Unbeknownst to Malik, the URLs were unique: when he visited the URLs, his IP address was revealed. With help from Windsor-area interviews, server logs and other sources, Bastone and his staff were able to flesh out Malik’s biography and pinpoint his exact location.[9] Along with publishing this information on their website, The Smoking Gun also turned their findings over to the FBI.[18]

Other Pranknet incidents

In February 2009, "Dex" called a KFC restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire. Posing as a manager from the corporate office, he persuaded employees to douse the building with fire suppression chemicals and to then proceed outside, remove all of their clothing and urinate on each other (he claimed the chemicals were caustic and this would render them inert).[8] When "Dex" posted the audio to YouTube he described it as "Epic KFC Prank Call (greatest ever)...dex successfully convinces the 3 female employees to undress fully nude OUTSIDE and URINATE ON EACH OTHER!!! AND MORE!" Many months later "Dex", posing this time as an insurance adjuster called the same KFC and had the victims describe their experiences while Pranknet members listened.[4]

On February 10, "Dex" and a member called "DTA_Mike", posing as hotel front desk employees, called two separate guests at the Best Western in Shillington, Pennsylvania. Using the pretense of a ruptured gas line, the caller persuaded each guest to break a window and then throw the television out. "Dex" and his friend repeated the same stunt on February 19 with a Best Western in Santee, California.[4]

On April 30, a Pranknet member called "Rollin in the A" called Prejean's Restaurant in Lafayette, Louisiana posing as an official from the health department. This target was selected because the restaurant provided live video streaming of its dining area on their own website. The victim at this restaurant was told that Prejean’s pork was tainted with the swine flu. "Rollin in the A" also told the manager to close the restaurant immediately and tell the customers (75 of them) they may have eaten tainted food.[4]

On May 27, "Dex" called a Hampton Inn in York, Nebraska and tricked an employee into setting off the fire alarm. As guests made their way to the lobby, a second call was placed to the front desk. "Dex" claimed that, to avoid alleged fines, the fire department should not be called. Instead, the caller gave various bogus instructions to turn the alarm off, including going to a website that only displayed pornography. The next suggestion from the caller was to break the front windows of the hotel. A truck driver staying at the hotel volunteered, and under direction from "Dex", the man drove his semi-trailer truck into the front door.[18] Later that night, "Dex" tweeted: "I just pulled off the most epic prank. I had a hotel guest back his truck into the hotel front window (in the lobby), and break the window." The post was deleted in late July.[8]

In June, a prank was made on a Holiday Inn Express in Conway, Arkansas. The caller posed as a representative from the company that installed the hotel’s fire sprinkler and claimed the system needed to be reset by pulling the fire alarm. Once the alarm was turned on, the clerk was told that the sprinklers would activate unless windows were broken.[19]

In July, a Pranknet member called a Hilton in Orlando, Florida and, purporting there to be a gas leak, convinced a family staying there to break windows with the lid for the toilet tank and throw their mattress out the window.[20] The incident cost $5,000 in damages.[8]

Also in July, a Pranknet caller informed two hotel guests that deadly spiders were about to infest their room. The caller was able to manipulate the couple into breaking their window with the tank lid from their toilet.[8]

On July 5, Powell and Markle called an Arby’s in Baytown (where Powell lives) and talked a worker there into triggering the fire suppression system, causing an estimated $4,600 in damages. Powell failed in his attempts to get any windows broken.[4] Powell was later arrested and charged with criminal mischief for the incident.[17]

On July 20, Markle tricked a desk clerk at the Homewood Suites in Lexington, Kentucky into drinking another person’s urine. The prank started with a call to a guest. The guest was told it was the front desk calling and that a prior guest had tested positive for Hepatitis C. The guest was then told there was a doctor on site and a simple urine test could determine if the guest was infected. The urine was to be brought to the front desk in a simple drinking glass. Markle then called the front desk alleging to be an employee of Martinelli's Cider. He told the clerk that a representative from the company would like to come downstairs with a sample of their new drink. The guest from the previous call then arrived and handed the clerk his urine. Markle then coaxed the woman to try it. He asked how it tasted. "Horrible," she said. "That does not taste like cider. I'm not going to take another sip, that's horrible." Markle replied: "Well, I need to inform you of something, ma'am. I want you to understand that you just drank that man's urine."[4] In its investigation, the Lufkin Police Department's cyber crimes division has requested a subpoena for Markle's Skype activities.[21] The police report classifies the Lexington incident as first-degree wanton endangerment, a Class D felony in Kentucky.[22]

Additionally, an employee at a Holiday Inn Express was persuaded by a Pranknet caller to set off a fire alarm, break windows, and set off sprinklers which flooded the building. Damages were estimated at $50,000.[7]

Phone and computer hijacking

Beginning in July 2009, Malik began hijacking phone numbers of U.S. businesses and had them forwarded to his Skype account. Claiming to be an authority from a particular business, he calls a phone company and claims they have no dial tone. He then requests that all calls be forwarded to the number he provides. [4]

On July 7 Malik took over incoming calls of the Olympic Game Farm in Port Angeles, Washington making obscene sexual comments to customers who called. On July 11, he repeated the stunt with the Fun 4 All amusement park in Chula Vista, California. On July 13 he took over incoming calls to a Best Western in Jacksonville, Florida for over 12 hours. In one interaction, a woman called to find out if her husband had arrived and was told first that he had been in an accident, and then that he was having sex with a man in his room and did not wish to be disturbed. On July 15, Malik controlled incoming calls to a Hilton Garden Inn in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He told people inquiring about a shuttle to take a cab and they’d be reimbursed. He told some callers the hotel had a swine flu outbreak and told other callers the hotel was in the midst of a hostage situation.[4]

Talking hotel front clerks through a series of steps using TeamViewer, Malik has posed as a corporate headquarters IT supervisor and taken remote control of hotel computers.[4]

Craigslist pranks

Pranknet members frequently place Craigslist ads offering free tickets or items. Inquirers are bombarded with obscene sexual rants and racial epithets. A 12-year old girl called about a free trampoline, and Malik told her not to get pregnant by a black man because "they have AIDS". Markle frequently calls women who are selling household items on Craigslist. After getting the victim’s home address, he then tells her he is on his way over to rape her and kill her children.[4]

References

  1. ^ a b c d Lamb, Joe (June 12, 2009), "CPD investigating prank call", The Log Cabin Democrat, http://www.thecabin.net/stories/061209/loc_0612090003.shtml 
  2. ^ a b Hoyland, Christa (July 14, 2009), "FBI investigating incidents of QSR phone-in vandalism", QSRweb, http://www.qsrweb.com/article.php?id=15180&prc=66&page=58 
  3. ^ a b c "Ontario man accused of mass online pranks", CBC News, August 6, 2009, http://www.cbc.ca/consumer/story/2009/08/05/ont-online-prankster523.html 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w "Outing An Online Outlaw", The Smoking Gun, August 4, 2009, http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2009/0803091pranknet1.html 
  5. ^ a b Leyden, John (August 10, 2009), "Hotel prank call badboy tracked down to mum's flat", The Register, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/08/10/pranknet/ 
  6. ^ Philippe BIONDI and Fabrice DESCLAUX. "Silver Needle in the Skype" (PDF). blackhat. http://www.blackhat.com/presentations/bh-europe-06/bh-eu-06-biondi/bh-eu-06-biondi-up.pdf. Retrieved 2009-08-09. 
  7. ^ a b Leonard, Tom (July 15, 2009). "FBI probes PrankNET over thousands of dollars in damage caused to hotels and restaurants". The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/5829770/FBI-probes-PrankNET-over-thousands-of-dollars-in-damage-caused-to-hotels-and-restaurants.html. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Abrams, Joseph (July 14, 2009). "Online Pranksters Wreak Havoc at Hotels, Restaurants Nationwide". Fox News. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,532241,00.html. 
  9. ^ a b Chen, Dalson (August 4, 2009), "Ontario man leader of notorious U.S. pranksters, website claims", The Vancouver Sun, http://www.vancouversun.com/Ontario+leader+notorious+pranksters+website+claims/1859973/story.html 
  10. ^ a b Verma, Sonya (August 8, 2009), "Out-of-line pranksters take cover online", The Globe and Mail, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/internet-pranksters-tactics-draw-criticism/article1245484/ 
  11. ^ a b Cook, Ashley (August 6, 2009), "Diboll man alleged to be prankster says it's not him", Lufkin Daily News, http://www.lufkindailynews.com/hp/content/news/stories/2009/08/06/prankster.html 
  12. ^ Phillips, Christel (August 7, 2009), "National Web site fingers Diboll teen as prankster", KTRE, http://www.ktre.com/Global/story.asp?S=10862439&nav=menu118_11_10 
  13. ^ "Another Pranknet Child Molester", The Smoking Gun, August 6, 2009, http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2009/0806091markle1.html 
  14. ^ "Prank phone call caused $5,000 to McDonald's", KTRE (Lufkin), September 9, 2009, http://www.ktre.com/global/story.asp?s=11099439 
  15. ^ "Second Pranknet Member Arrested", The Smoking Gun, September 9, 2009, http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2009/0909091prankster1.html 
  16. ^ Phillips, Christel (September 24, 2009), ""Prankster" Extradited", KTRE (Lufkin), http://www.ktre.com/Global/story.asp?S=11195311 
  17. ^ a b c "First Pranknet Arrest", The Smoking Gun, August 26, 2009, http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2009/0826091slipknot1.html 
  18. ^ a b Wilkinson, Melanie (August 5, 2009), "Hotel prank unraveling, according to Court TV website", York News-Times, http://www.yorknewstimes.com/articles/2009/08/05/news/doc4a78fc825bdfc823867445.txt 
  19. ^ Dickerson, Rachel Parker (August 7, 2009), "Web Site Unmasks Motel Prankster", KATV, http://www.katv.com/news/stories/0809/647593.html 
  20. ^ Beitsch, Rebecca; Edwards, Amy L. (July 9, 2009), "Pranksters strike: Indian River County deputy fooled into breaking hotel window with toilet tank", Orlando Sentinel, http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2009/jul/09/pranksters-strike-if-caller-says-trash-your-hotel-/ 
  21. ^ Cook, Ashley (August 7, 2009), "Police expand investigation into Diboll man's activities", Lufkin Daily News, http://www.lufkindailynews.com/hp/content/news/stories/2009/08/07/Markle.html 
  22. ^ Ulber, Emily (August 7, 2009), "Phone prank at south Lexington hotel might be linked to international ring", Lexington Herald-Leader, http://www.kentucky.com/181/story/887545.html?storylink=omni_popular 

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