Telephone terrorist: outing an online outlaw
A TSG investigation unmasks the leader of Pranknet and the miscreants behind a year-long wave of phone call criminality
The Smoking Gun
August 4, 2009
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.