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
It is certainly not a coincidence that all the damaging Pranknet calls have been directed at American businesses and residents. Malik has recently provided some Pranknet denizens with lengthy target lists including the locations and phone numbers of hundreds of Best Western and Hilton Garden Inn hotels, all of which are in the U.S. (excerpts from those compilations, found on the Pranknet.org web site, can be seen here). Pranknet's boss and underboss are Canadian citizens, and apparently of the opinion that they are beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement officials.
After Malik & Co. broadcast the KFC prank over Paltalk earlier this year, the chat company banned the group from its service. But Pranknet quickly regrouped and established a similar room via Beyluxe, a rival chat service. Beyluxe, which is headquartered overseas, is either unaware or unconcerned about the rampant criminality taking place on Pranknet.
Malik's banishment from Paltalk was in the works prior to the KFC hoax. He had repeatedly launched illegal denial of service (DoS) attacks on Paltalk servers housing competing chat rooms. The sophisticated assaults increased after Malik was banned from Paltalk, according to Perry Scherer, the company's chief technology officer. "He's a reprehensible, horrible creature with no morals," said Scherer, who added that his company spent significant sums to counter Malik's attacks and protect against future incursions. In a TSG interview, Jeri Batsford, a Tennessee woman who was, until recently, a Pranknet regular, acknowledged her involvement in the Paltalk attacks. She admitted paying for Malik's use of a Voxel server from which he launched the DoS blitz.
Batsford, who was a gleeful participant in a number of acts of hotel vandalism, left the group after a falling out with Malik and others. When it was reported that she had contacted law enforcement about Pranknet activities, Batsford became the chat room's biggest target (she defected around the time a fire alarm/sprinkler prank caused $50,000 in damage at a Holiday Inn Express in Conway, Arkansas). As a result, she has endured weeks of unending harassment at her home and the gourmet food market where she works. Last week, a chat room regular--an adult male nicknamed "Moe Lester"--urged fellow Pranknet habitues to call Tennessee's Child Protective Services division and lodge fabricated claims about Batsford beating her teenage son. "Moe Lester" is a Nantucket resident whose business would likely suffer if his real name was attached to his racist Pranknet musings (not to mention his advocacy of filing false child abuse reports).
For his part, Malik last Friday suggested taking the long view when it came to "trying to fuck with" Batsford. "She isn't going to answer the phone. She isn't goign to let you get to her," he wrote. Instead, the Pranknet boss suggested that they would "have to get her later on down the road, when she least expects it." In some quarters, that might be construed as a threat against the 40-year-old Batsford.
In the wake of Batsford's approach to law enforcement, Pranknet lost one of its most promising vandals. Known as "Rollin in the A," the 20-year-old Atlanta-area man said that he "freaked out" when a TSG reporter contacted him at his home. He responded by immediately deleting the Beyluxe chat program from his computer. "I regret that I got involved with it," he said. "I regret the damages. It was a stupid, bad decision." "Rollin" spoke with TSG on the condition that his real name not be published.
He said that he first listened to some Pranknet calls on YouTube and recalled thinking, "Damn, I can't believe this shit." Soon, he was making prank calls to hotel guests, one of which resulted in a call referred to as "Demolition Man" in Pranknet circles (that tape can be listened to here). In an April 30 call to Prejean's, a Lafayette, Louisiana restaurant, "Rollin" posed as a Health Department official and warned the eatery that it had received a shipment of pork tainted with a strain of swine flu. He directed the eatery to close immediately, and told a manager to inform 75 diners of the possibility that they had consumed contaminated food.
"Rollin" told TSG that Malik picked Prejean's as a target because the Cajun restaurant's web site offered a live video stream of its dining room. So Pranknet visitors were able to watch the business clear out in real time. A video of the Prejean's prank can be viewed in the column at right.
Asked about his opinion of Malik, who he knew only as "Dex," "Rollin" said that the Pranknet founder was "very serious about wanting to build the room up. That's the reason he did the sprinkler calls, to get new listeners." He added that Malik "feels very comfortable with himself" and wants Pranknet hoaxes "to be epic."
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In recent weeks, Malik has added a new criminal wrinkle to the Pranknet repertoire. On at least six occasions, he has successfully hijacked the phone number of a U.S. business and had it forwarded to one of the Skype numbers he controlled.
In each instance, an unknown male caller had contacted a phone company and pretended to be a representative of the targeted business. The caller claimed that there was no dial tone on the firm's phone, and requested that all calls be immediately forwarded to a number that he provided. When that occurred, Malik could barely contain his excitement: "OMG EPIC. WE NOW OWN A FUCKING KIDS WONDELAND. BWHAHAHAHAHA.. THEY WON'T BE ABLE TO TURN IT OFF EITHER, NOT EASILY." On other occasions, he announced that he had "taken over a ZOO," and "I AM NOW A HAIR CUTTING SALON."
On July 13, while calls to a Best Western in Jacksonville, Florida were being rerouted to him, Malik spoke with an elderly woman who was trying to confirm that a male acquaintance had arrived safely at the hotel. After first telling the woman that the man had been in an accident, he then claimed that the guest was in his room with another man and did not want to be disturbed. While the old woman's dismay was evident, one Pranknet commenter thought it was comedy gold: "This bitch is gonna have a heart attack." Malik controlled the 60-room hotel's phone for almost 13 hours, according to a Best Western manager.
The Olympic Game Farm in Port Angeles, Washington had its phone hijacked by Malik on July 7. When callers dialed to ask questions about what time the business closed, Malik made crude sexual remarks to them. The phone at the Fun 4 All amusement park in Chula Vista, California was similarly compromised on July 11, with calls being forwarded to a Skype number with a 202 area code. "We are totally ransacking, taking over all these businesses," a pleased Malik commented at one point.
For about four hours on July 15, Malik was in control of the incoming phone calls to a Hilton Garden Inn in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When travelers who had arrived at the airport called about the availability of the hotel shuttle, Malik told them that it was not operating and that they would be reimbursed for taking a cab to the hotel. Other callers were told that there had been a swine flu outbreak at the hotel or that there was a hostage situation underway.
After consulting with AT&T, hotel manager Terri Kullerd learned that the Hilton's calls had been illegally forwarded to (541) 207-1337, another Skype number. When TSG called the number, a man answered and quickly hung up when a reporter identified himself. Almost immediately in the Pranknet chat room, a regular nicknamed "paranormal" was wondering how a TSG reporter had obtained his Skype number.
Kullerd said she spoke to Tulsa cops and the local FBI office right after last month's phone hijacking.
On numerous occasions, Malik has also succeeded in remotely taking control of a hotel's computer by posing as an IT supervisor at corporate headquarters. By directing front desk employees to the web site for TeamViewer, a free program that allows a user to "take control over a computer anywhere on the Internet," he has walked them through a series of steps that end with him in control of, or mirroring, the hotel computer.
As companies become more aware of Pranknet's m.o. (a Florida sheriff's alert can be seen here, while an internal Choice Hotels e-mail is here), Malik and his followers have recently been left to spend most of their time fielding calls prompted by fraudulent Craigslist ads offering free goods. Callers are routinely subjected to a torrent of racial slurs and sexual comments. One evening, when a 12-year-old girl called about a purported free trampoline, Malik offered the child some advice: Do not get pregnant by a black man, he said. "They have AIDS."
One Pranknet mainstay, who would likely love to see his nickname in print, fashions himself as doing a daily prank "show," like a radio DJ. The wheezing adult male, who sounds like he has a working familiarity with various stimulants, specializes in calling up female Craigslist advertisers offering baby clothes, toys, or Winnie the Pooh swings. After sweetly extracting the home address where he can come and purchase the items, the man then announces that he's headed over to rape the woman and kill her children.
Early Saturday evening, the Pranknet crew came up with a new variation on the fake classified stunt. An ad was placed on Craigslist's Denver site offering a free 32-inch flat-screen TV. Those interested were directed to immediately call 541-207-1337 (which happened to be the same Skype number used in the July 15 hijacking of the Tulsa Hilton's phones).
As a steady stream of callers reached Malik, he directed them to a home on Warren Drive, where they could pick up the TV. At the same time, Pranknet members were calling local plumbers and having them dispatched to the same address for a service call. The address was selected because it was directly across the street from the home of Timothy Tomlin, a 26-year-old Pranket member known as "Timmy two-bags." To the delight of chat room participants, Tomlin, who lives at 6981 Warren Drive, pointed a web cam at the neighbor's house and provided a live feed of the unfolding chaos.
For those unable to watch the cam, Tomlin provided a running commentary on the number of cars massing in front of his neighbor's home, along with descriptions of prospective TV recipients: "I see the lady....shes old and limping." Tomlin's wife, from whom he is separated, said Sunday that she passed two TSG messages onto him, but the Denver man never called back a reporter.
Compared to Pranknet's previous body of work--flooded businesses, destroyed hotel rooms, damaged restaurants with naked employees on the sidewalk, and broken glass everywhere--this was pretty tame stuff. Still, the image of grown man hiding in the dark tormenting a neighbor for the enjoyment of other guys sitting alone in front of their computers on a Saturday night crisply illustrates the totality of the Pranknet experience.
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Tariq Malik once told a friend that his first computer was a 486 DX with multimedia capability. He had lobbied his parents hard to shell out for the used model, which he apparently used to launch Pranknet about a decade ago.
At the time, he was a skinny high school student whose face was dominated by a pair of unruly eyebrows. He viewed his new project as an "online radio station." Known as "Skream9" and "New Age Pimp," Malik wanted to broadcast "anything that makes the public laugh...It's all about the audience." His small group of listeners included fellow teens with online nicknames like "AssJesus," "rage16," and Evil-Rome0." To facilitate ideas, one day he added a "Prank someone form" to his page. "CLICK HERE AND FILL IN INFO ABOUT THE VICTIM," he helpfully instructed visitors. The teenager desperately wanted to build an online community which he would head. "He likes being the leader," recalled a friend from that period.
Over the years, Pranknet would hit fallow patches, usually when Malik had more important things to do. He started an online business, NRG Servers, that rented server space to the hardcore gaming crowd. Malik's business was successful enough, he told a friend, that he was able to get a Dodge and move out of his mother's Windsor apartment. He didn't travel far, though. Malik remained in the worn Riverside community across from Detroit's Renaissance Center and over which a yeasty smell lingers thanks to a nearby Hiram Walker plant.
But when Malik's game server business failed, he reluctantly had to move back in with his mother. He told an online friend that he first made sure there was an unprotected Wi-Fi network that he could access from his parent's flat (though he really had no other place to go). In short order--with no job and time on his hands--Malik once again set out to grow that online audience he has always chased. His target demographic was bored young men (and a few stray women) who enjoyed the humiliation racket.
As his pranks have escalated into an assortment of criminal behavior, a listener could be forgiven for concluding that all the destruction and breaking glass was Malik's way of keeping himself interested in the endeavor. At times on the mic he sounds bored and distracted, usually while insulting or threatening an umpteenth Craigslist caller (he recently demanded that one man begin taking Seroquel, an antipsychotic with which he seemed familiar).
Last month, after NBC's "Today" show aired a report about a prank at an Orlando hotel--which did not mention Pranknet's involvement--Malik whined on the mic that, "Apparently I'm to blame for everything. It's really annoying." And in a July 13 Twitter post he complained about how "the news distorts and lies about shit."
Having succumbed to baser urges, Malik, sequestered in his 10' x 12' Canadian bedroom, is now stuck dealing with the messy consequences.