Earlier this year a string of fast food restaurants across America were smashed up by their own employees – tricked into causing the damage by a team of prank callers. BBC Trending has traced the calls back to a little known web forum and spoken to some of its members to find out how things got so out of hand.
At the beginning of April, footage emerged online showing the employees of a Burger King in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, smashing the windows of their own restaurant. The video, filmed on a smartphone, picked up more than a million views, and the story became international news.
The employees said they were instructed to break the glass by someone posing as an official from the local fire department, who called them over the phone and said a gas leak would cause the building to explode if they didn’t take immediate action.
In hindsight the prank call may sound implausible, but it wasn’t the only call, and the Burger King staff weren’t the only ones to fall for it.
Since the beginning of the year similar calls have fooled employees at another Burger King in California, a Jack in the Box in Indianapolis and a Wendy’s in Phoenix.
Stranger still, the spate of prank call crimes mirrors a previous wave of attacks – committed back in 2009 – almost exactly.
To try and understand what’s happening today, BBC Trending looked into the events of seven years ago, which began on a now defunct web forum called Pranknet.
The forum and its members were exposed by William Bastone, editor of the investigative website Smoking Gun.
“You could sit there and just listen to people as they essentially committed crimes live on the internet,” he tells us.
The crimes weren’t being committed by isolated individuals, or a couple of friends trying to make each other laugh. Instead, prank callers were organising themselves into co-ordinated teams on the Pranknet forum. After sharing tips on how to make the maximum impact, they would live stream their calls to an eager audience – as many as hundreds of people – listening along online.
John Suler is Professor of Psychology at Rider University, and says the anonymity provided by the internet pushes people to go further. “If people don’t know who you are, they’re more likely to act in a disinhibited way, to do things they typically wouldn’t say or do in the real world,” he explains. Coupled with the amplifying effect of live internet audience, forum members took their calls to ever new extremes, often into criminal territory.
One of the Pranknet members was James Markle. His calls led to criminal damage at two restaurants in the US, and he describes the euphoria he felt when unwitting staff were duped by his tactics. “To me at that point in time that was like the greatest achievement I had ever conquered. The sense of pride just washed over me.”
“It made me feel accepted. Like I was part of an organisation that needed me, that wanted me, and I didn’t have that in my normal life,” he explains.
But as a result of the Smoking Gun’s investigation, Markle was caught by the police, charged, and found guilty of criminal mischief – a crime for which he served five years in jail. “Because of what I did I missed the birth of my daughter. That will be the single biggest regret of my entire life,” he says.
Pranknet is now long gone, but that hasn’t stopped a flurry of identical crimes being carried out this year. So who is behind the new wave of calls?
BBC Trending has traced the latest attacks to another web forum dedicated to prank calls and other forms kinds of online harassment. Anonymous members of the forum claim to know those responsible for the crimes.
Beneath a general chat window, the forum offers guides to potential callers – on how to hide your real life location and manipulate people at the other end of the phone, as well as more routine subject like homework, and heartbreak.
One of the members, who said he was 19, and would only give his screen name, “Swatnet”, told us about one of the prank calls he had been involved with, an act of cyber-bullying in which he persuaded Twitter to suspend another teenage boy’s profile.”It’s just a fun thing to do. He didn’t really do anything wrong to us, but he was vulnerable, so we took advantage,” Swatnet says of his victim.
He firmly denies taking part in what he describes as more serious calls, telling us he draws the line at anything that could cause physical damage. But other forum members have allegedly been involved in “swatting” other people – calling the police and telling them a serious crime has been committed at a particular address, triggering a heavily armed SWAT team to raid the residence in question.
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Swatnet thinks the current trend is on the wane – a result of better identity detection on the free web services prank callers use to talk to one another, and live stream the calls.
“As methods of doing this get smaller and smaller it’s going to happen less and less,” he says.
The Coon Rapids Police Department is still searching for those responsible for the attack on the Burger King, but patrol captain Tom Hawley says the perpetrators could face very serious charges. “Some of the crimes they’re potentially looking at would be felony, terroristic threats, criminal damage to property and impersonating a fire official,” he says. James Markle, the man convicted for making prank calls in 2009, offers a similarly stark warning to those involved with the community. He now deeply regrets his actions, and is working with police to try and bring the current perpetrators to justice.
“To the people out there who are doing these prank calls – you’re not cool. You just need to get out, not do any more of them, and hope to God the police department doesn’t figure out who’s doing them, because they are nipping on your heels. I’ve been helping them.”
Blog by Kate Lamble and Sam Judah
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