Unmasking the leader of Pranknet and the miscreants behind a year-long wave of phone call criminality
Pranknet - Police Report Arby's Baytown, Texas
Pranknet - Hit List Telephone Numbers
Pranknet - Incident At Holiday Inn, Conway, Arkansas
Pranknet - Orange County Sheriff's Bulletin
Pranknet - Choice Hotel's Email Warning
Pranknet - Johnson City Sprinkler Incident
Pranknet - Orlando Hotel Incident
Pranknet - Alabama Comfort Suites
AUGUST 4--At 4:15 AM on a recent Tuesday, on a quiet, darkened street in Windsor, Ontario, a man was wrapping up another long day tormenting and terrorizing strangers on the telephone. Working from a sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment in a ramshackle building a block from the Detroit River, the man, nicknamed "Dex", heads a network of so-called pranksters who have spent more than a year engaged in an orgy of criminal activity--vandalism, threats, harassment, impersonation, hacking, and other assorted felonies and misdemeanors--targeting U.S. businesses and residents.
Coalescing in an online chat room, members of the group, known as Pranknet, use the telephone to carry out cruel and outrageous hoaxes, which they broadcast live around-the-clock on the Internet. Masquerading as hotel employees, emergency service workers, and representatives of fire alarm companies, "Dex" and his cohorts have successfully prodded unwitting victims to destroy hotel rooms and lobbies, set off sprinkler systems, activate fire alarms, and damage assorted fast food restaurants.
But while Pranknet's hoaxes have caused millions of dollars in damages, it is the group's efforts to degrade and frighten targets that makes it even more odious. For example, a bizarre July 20 prank ended with a hotel worker actually sipping from a urine sample provided by a guest at a Homewood Suites in Kentucky. Additionally, at least twice this year, fast food workers--fearing that they would suffer burns after being doused by chemicals from a fire suppression system--stripped off their clothes on the sidewalk outside their respective restaurants.
"Dex", who took his nickname from the lead character in "Dexter," the Showtime series about a serial killer who murders serial killers, is bitingly contemptuous of law enforcement and its ability to stop Pranknet or locate its members. When a victim warns him that they are contacting police, he laughs derisively and offers to provide cops with a crayon to trace his number. He and his followers place their prank calls via Skype, confident that the Internet phone service sufficiently cloaks their identities and whereabouts.
By any measure, "Dex" is a sociopath, a mean-spirited sadist who spews a barrage of racial epithets, vulgarities, and threats, and clearly enjoys the panic, fear, and damage he causes. While his frauds and sinister manipulations often rely on naive and compliant dupes, "Dex" prefers to make it appear that he is practicing some mysterious alchemy. "About to social engineer some people into doing wild shit," he announced in a late-May Twitter post.
As the leader of what is essentially an online criminal organization, "Dex" has been careful to cloak details about his life and specific location, relying on a small circle of Pranknet confidants to help underwrite the operation and conduct financial transactions on his behalf.
But a seven-week investigation by The Smoking Gun has begun to unravel "Dex"'s organization and chronicle the sprawl of its criminality. The TSG probe has also stripped Pranknet's leader and some of his cohorts of their anonymity, which will likely come as welcome news to the numerous law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, probing the group's activities.
On July 21, a pair of TSG reporters approached "Dex"'s building at 1637 Assumption Street in Windsor, where he lives in the ground-floor 'B' apartment. Calling to his mother, who was standing near an open living room window, a reporter asked her to summon her son. The woman disappeared into "Dex"'s adjoining bedroom, where the pair could be heard whispering. Despite repeated requests to come out and speak with TSG, "Dex" hid with his mother in his bedroom, the windows of which were covered with plastic shopping bags, a towel, and one black trash bag.
As the sun set and his room darkened, "Dex" did not reach to turn on a light. The notorious Internet Tough Guy, who has gleefully used the telephone to cause all kinds of havoc, was now himself panicking. He had been found. And, as a result, was barricaded in Pranknet World Headquarters with his mom, while two reporters loitered outside his window and curious neighbors wondered what was up.
That's when the online outlaw came up with a plan.
Tariq Malik, the 25-year-old founder and leader of Pranknet, decided to call the police.
It was a move that would have chagrined his devoted followers, whose "Dex" is a bombastic, sharp-tongued cop hater. On the mic, he is always ready to pulverize victims, denigrating them as weak faggots, pussies, cock gobblers, niggers, beaners, and every other racial slur imaginable (though, notably, Malik does not take part in vicious chat room abuse directed at "Pakis," the group's catch-all term for Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants).
Cowering in his room with his mother, Malik called 911 to report "suspicious persons" outside his home (it is unclear whether he used Skype to beckon cops). According to Windsor Police Service records, Malik asked not to be contacted by officers when they arrived at the Assumption Street address. Despite that request, Fouzia Malik, 51, eventually allowed a pair of Windsor patrolmen to enter the family's $600-a-month apartment. The officers spent about 30 minutes conferring with Tariq before emerging to report that he did not wish to speak with reporters.
It will likely not be the last time law enforcement finds itself inside Tariq Malik's bedroom.
* * *
Late on the evening of February 10, a call to Room 306 at the Best Western in Shillington, Pennsylvania roused a sleeping traveler. Jonathan Davis at the front desk was calling with scary news: A ruptured gas line was threatening hotel guests, some of whom were already feeling lightheaded and dizzy.
Noting that he was following a "protocol sheet," Davis instructed the male guest that he needed to quickly unplug all electrical devices and place wet towels at the base of the room's door to keep carbon monoxide from entering the space. After the guest took those precautions, Davis then directed him to bust out a 5' x 5' section of window. The man, who happened to be a glazier, asked, "Are you serious?" When Davis urgently assured him that the drastic measure was required for his safety, the guest replied that he would put on clothes and "bust this fucker."
Using a chair, the guest then smashed a window. As broken glass cascaded into the room, Davis then advised that the television screen would need to broken since the tube contained an electrical charge that could spark an explosion. Davis suggested the use of the toilet tank cover to disable the television. But when the guest threw the porcelain lid at the TV, it broke. So Davis directed the man to toss the set out the window. Stepping gingerly around glass shards, the guest complied.
At this point, Davis's supervisor, Jeff Anderson, joined the call and determined that the guests in 306 had co-workers in the adjoining room. Anderson then called Room 304 and advised the man answering the phone to "remain calm." He told the guest of the gas leak and advised him of the safety measures that had already been followed next door. The man in 304 also unplugged electrical devices, placed wet towels at the door, smashed a window, and tossed the television to the sidewalk below. Anderson then directed the guest to pull the fire alarm. As a siren wailed, the guest asked Anderson, "Can we get out of this motel? Why can't we just leave the building?" He had previously remarked, "I hope this ain't some kind of joke."
The call, of course, was the work of Pranknet. Malik played the role of "Anderson," while "Davis" was portrayed by another chat room regular who uses the nickname "DTA_Mike." While capitalizing on their victims's disorientation and fear, Malik and his sidekick spoke authoritatively and were politely insistent. Malik excels at this sort of manipulation and reinforcement, which often includes the introduction of a second person--usually a supposed manager or supervisor--to underscore the urgency of a purported threat.
At the close of the Pennsylvania prank, Malik was pleased. "That's some funny shit, dude," he remarked to online listeners.
The Best Western call was one of Malik's earliest successful efforts to cause damage at a U.S. hotel. On February 19, he and a crony reprised the gas leak prank at a Best Western in Santee, California (since Pranknet members never have the name of an actual hotel guest, they just ask for a random room number). Around midnight, they were connected to Room 208, where a woman answered the phone. Hotel employee "Jonathan Davis" apprised the guest of a dangerous gas leak, and relayed safety instructions he was receiving from the "Department of Fire and Safety."
Soon, with the help of a male cousin, the woman was breaking windows. Without identifying himself, Malik joined the call and said, "You guys creating that airflow is definitely helping the situation right now." He then warned her that the TV "could potentially explode" and needed to be smashed. When the male guest balked at destroying the set, Malik urged her to "step up" and "deactivate the transformer in the TV, ma'am." He also claimed that hotel employees were "working on contingency plans to get you out of that room."
As she grew more frantic, the crying woman pleaded, "Can I leave? I want to get out of this room. Please."
When it appeared as if the guests had finally fled the room, Malik and his coconspirator--who were joined via a balky Skype connection--conferred about their next move with Pranknet listeners commenting via a chat window. Malik sought audience input on whether he should try to prank another room or call the front desk to complain about "a crazy bitch in 208."
When San Diego County Sheriff's Department deputies responded to a 911 call from the Best Western, they questioned the Room 208 guests about the trashed room. The man told cops what appeared to be a harebrained story about how he caused the damage at the direction of a front desk employee, according to a sheriff's spokesperson. In a bid to avoid arrest, the man, a parolee, agreed to immediately pay cash to cover the damages.
While the Santee hoax was a Pranknet success--significant damage, bedlam, and a crying woman, to boot--Malik was nonetheless a bit melancholy. Only 38 listeners were enjoying the prank as it unspooled over ten minutes. Such a virtuosic performance deserved a massive audience, he must have thought. It was as if Malik was singing at La Scala for just the stagehands.
Malik's desire to grow his audience has dovetailed with the escalation of Pranknet's criminal activities over the past year. He and his accomplices have sought to perpetrate the kind of damaging pranks that listeners would consider "epic," the chat room's highest compliment. A prank caller also gets kudos when an antagonized victim yells or curses back at them. Eliciting such "rage" is a Pranknet rite of passage.
Malik appears to believe that Pranknet will someday achieve the mainstream success of the Jerky Boys or Comedy Central's "Crank Yankers." He remarked one evening that, "If we get it big enough, it could get more than just fun." To date, his bid to expand Pranknet's audience has met with limited success. During the weeks that TSG monitored the chat room (for a total of about 150 hours), the largest audience at any one time barely topped 200 listeners.
This modest growth, however, has come with significant challenges for Malik. Many new listeners appear to have arrived at Pranknet after seeing recent media accounts about individual damaging hoaxes (which have been widely discussed on popular sites like Stickam.com and Fark.com, and the 4chan.org message board). This new crowd, Malik believes, includes law enforcement officers, journalists, and other unwelcome "trolls."
The increased scrutiny (and TSG's impending story) have left Malik paranoid. So he has gone on a mole hunt, of sorts, capturing the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of visitors in a bid to somehow sniff out interlopers (New York City residents are immediately suspect since TSG is headquartered in Manhattan). In a post last week, the flustered Pranknet chief notified chat room visitors that phone pranks were not to result in damage, broken glass, etc. So it had come to this: Malik was being forced to deny his own heritage.
Malik was more cocky and carefree when he agreed to a recent TSG interview (back when he was still known to a reporter as only "Dex"). Calling via his beloved Skype, Malik, of course, expressed no remorse for his stunts. Prank targets, he declared, were "responsible for their own actions." The victims he and his cronies abused and degraded daily were simply "sheep" with "no brains of their own."
One of Pranknet's goals, Malik said, was to prove how "stupid" its targets were. When a reporter then facetiously asked if such an unmasking of low-wage fast food and hotel workers was somehow a public service, Malik gave a serious answer. "In a sense, yes," he said.
The doughy Malik, by all indications, is a virtual shut-in. Neighbors interviewed barely remembered ever seeing him. A woman who lives next door recalled spotting him one time, after the building's fire alarm was pulled and residents had to briefly evacuate their apartments. A former landlord rented to Fouzia Malik for a year, but did not know Tariq lived in his three-unit building until the night a fire destroyed the property.
A story about that September 2008 blaze appeared in The Windsor Star, which reported that Malik, without a shirt or shoes, fled when he saw smoke billowing from the building. "But the online businessman," the Star noted, "could not simply watch his home burn without doing something." Malik told a reporter, "I ran back inside and said, 'I've got to save something. So I grabbed my laptop." Without that heroic action--screw the family photos and heirlooms--Pranknet was saved from a fiery, if temporary, death. "We need to find a place to live," Malik told the Star. "I feel displaced, disoriented, borderline lost."
[Two Pranknet figures independently told TSG that, after the fire, they sent money to Malik to help him get back on his feet. Both sources--one of whom remains active in the chat room--said they wired money last year via Western Union to Windsor, Ontario. In those instances, the recipient of the funds was listed as "Tariq Malik," according to the sources.]
While TSG reporters watched his residence over two days last month, Malik's mother Fouzia twice left to ride the bus to do grocery shopping. Her son, though, never emerged from the apartment. Over the past several years, the Maliks have bounced from a series of cheap Windsor flats, even once spending time in a rooming house. Malik has told online acquaintances that his father, a plumber, died about a decade ago, and that money is frequently in short supply.
Offline friends--if they even exist--are minimal. He is part of that young male subspecies that does not have a job or a girlfriend, passed on college, and spends hours a day playing so-called first-person shooter games like "Counter-Strike," "Halo," and "Crossfire." Malik addresses everyone--including the Pranknet audience itself--as "Dude." He steals his Wi-Fi. And he'd certainly be living in his mother's basement if she had one.
While Malik can be engaging, quick-witted, and funny on the mic, he is also a brute with a coarse worldview: most people are simps looking for a handout and are deserving of abuse. The source of such misanthropy is unknown, but it is seconded and abetted by Pranknet's malicious amen chorus. In a June 17 interview, Malik blithely said he was not concerned about calls being traced to him, reflecting the sort of misplaced confidence shared by many of his online associates.