Imagine yourself in a motel room in Nebraska or California, settling in for the night, when the phone rings and a man identifying himself as Jonathan Davis, working the front desk, says you are endangered by a gas leak.
"Can you unplug the television? Anything that's like, the coffee pot, the microwave? We don't want an explosion to occur."
You do as you are told. After all, there is a gas leak, right?
Davis tells you he has to put the phone down while he takes a call from the fire department. You overhear him: "Are you kidding me… How soon are you going to be here… Oh, my God. You want her to do that?"
He comes back. "I need you to get a five-foot by eight-foot section, bust out the window. Get fresh air in the window right now, because --"
Now you're scared. "What do we have to do?" You call to your cousin, who is in the room with you. "Bust the window out! Right now!"
In another minute Davis is telling you to smash the television set to defuse a potential electrical charge -- and you go along, because, after all, there is a gas leak.
Only there isn't. "Jonathan Davis" is a serial prankster, hundreds or thousands of miles away in Canada or Texas, posing as the motel desk clerk downstairs. He called the motel and probably asked for your room at random. And he's just persuaded you to do thousands of dollars in damage -- while 40 people listened to you panic. The whole phone conversation was audible through an Internet chat room.
The Smoking Gun, an investigative Web site, has been tracking the doings of a loosely organized group that called itself Pranknet. It was started and organized, the site says, by Tariq Malik, an unemployed 25-year-old man who lives with his mother in Windsor, Ontario. Malik and various co-conspirators -- connected online -- have allegedly been calling hotels and fast-food restaurants around the U.S., persuading people they were in imminent danger, and getting them to do destructive and often degrading things. There have been cases from New Hampshire to Tennessee, Arkansas to Pennsylvania.
But law enforcement officials in half a dozen jurisdictions told ABCNews.com that, so far, Malik and his cohorts have not been arrested or charged with any crime, and they're not even sure what charges they would use.
The Smoking Gun says Malik uses Skype, the online phone system, making his calls cheap -- and harder to track. It says he's used the online screen name "Dex," presumably borrowed from the Showtime series "Dexter," about a serial killer who kills other killers.
In at least two cases this year, says The Smoking Gun, fast-food workers have been persuaded to set off the restaurants' sprinkler systems -- then told the fastest way to protect themselves from chemical "burns" from fire retardants is to tear off their clothes, in public.
In another case, a motel guest in York, Neb., was persuaded to set off a fire alarm -- and then the desk clerk got a call saying the fastest way to deactivate it was to get someone to smash the front window of the lobby. A worried trucker obliged by driving his semi into it.
The gas-leak stunt has been pulled off at several hotels around the country, says the Web site, and "Dex" is very smooth at it. (The example above was transcribed from audio The Smoking Gun recorded and posted from a case in Santee, Calif.)
"It's pretty horrifying to listen to," said William Bastone, editor of The Smoking Gun. "When he gets someone to put a wet towel under the door, you know where it's going -- and you can't stop it."
Online Pranksters Get People to Cause Thousands in Damage
Bastone and two fellow staffers, Andrew Goldberg and Joseph Jesselli, say they spent seven weeks tracking down the organizers of Pranknet. They found Malik was apparently a shut-in in his mother's apartment in a run-down part of Windsor, trying to create mayhem and hoping to draw an audience.
Police say they have not been sure how to react to the perplexing calls they've received.
"When the patrol guys went out there, it was a very unusual situation," said Sgt. Thomas Poulin of the San Diego County Sheriff's Office in Santee, Calif.
Poulin said that until reporters called him, he "hadn't a clue" that the gas-leak prank in Santee was not an isolated case. "In 25 years of police work, I've never seen anything like this," he said.
The FBI in Washington, contacted by ABCNews.com, said its office in Knoxville, Tenn., had been working on the case, but the agency was not sure what federal laws had been violated.
Canadian police say much the same. Sgt. Brett Corey of the Windsor, Ontario, police confirmed that "we do have some investigators looking into this," but said there have been no complaints filed in Windsor and is not sure what the possible charges would be. "Mischief" is a crime in Canada, but they are not sure "Dex" has caused any mischief in Canada.
Bastone said that "Dex," apparently spooked by the unwanted attention, has left the online chat rooms he used, pulled down the audio he posted on YouTube of phone calls in which people fell for Pranknet's ruses, and deleted the tweets he posted on Twitter to boast of his successes.
But so far he appears to have gotten away with his pranks. In the Santee case, the police there say, he lucked out. His victim turned out to have a police record -- and, to avoid any more legal tangles, offered to pay for the damage he had been fooled into causing.