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Prank Calls are a Danger to Tourists, the Hotel Industry and Police

By Walter Pacheco, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 24, 2011--The phone rings in your hotel room, and the caller, claiming he's from the front desk, frantically warns you there's a deadly gas leak. He urges you to activate the fire alarm. Maybe even smash the hotel-room windows.

What do you do? Panic and do as you're told? Or calmly hang up, realizing it's a prank?

Deputies at the Orange County Sheriff's Office said a clerk at an International Drive-area hotel received an automated call from an unknown caller Feb. 9 saying to pull the fire alarm and activate fire sprinklers because of a blaze in the hotel.

A few days later, another caller, this time from a phone number traced to Canada, called another I-Drive area hotel and claimed there was a gas leak.

Cpl. Marcus Camacho of the Sheriff's Office said employees in both incidents immediately disconnected the call and didn't heed the callers' warnings -- a positive sign the hotel industry is on to these pranksters.

For Central Florida, an area synonymous with tourism and hospitality, the pranks pose a particular danger to travelers, the hotel industry and local law-enforcement officers, who must be pulled from other duties to respond to the bogus incidents.

Similar pranksters in 2009 succeeded in tricking hotel employees and guests -- including an Indian River County sheriff's deputy -- to trash hotel rooms, causing thousands of dollars in damage to hotel property and personal belongings.

Sheriff's deputies and Orlando police responded to those incidents.

"These pranks go beyond being funny," Camacho said. "They waste our time."

The sheriff's corporal has been following these incidents for several years and thinks many of them are possibly linked to a Canadian group called PrankNet or a copycat caller.

The group, also known as Prank University and PrankU, has gained notoriety across the country. Pranks the group orchestrates are often played live over a members-only Internet chat room and have led victims to destroy private property in an effort to save themselves from what they perceive as imminent danger.

Pranks in Central Florida, elsewhere

Mark Kantorski and his wife, Lisa, received a call July 6, 2009, from someone posing as the front-desk clerk at an Orlando Hilton Garden Inn alerting them of a gas leak inside their hotel room, Orlando police reports show.

The man on the phone commanded them to keep the room door closed, break the bathroom mirror and grab the gas masks hidden behind the glass, police said. He also begged them to punch a hole in the wall with a lamp so they could reach an unconscious man in the adjacent room.

The OPD incident report shows the couple and their children also were instructed to smash the windows, toss out the mattresses and jump out of the room and onto the mattress to avoid exposure to the lethal gas.

Fearing for the safety of his wife and children, Kantorski snapped the toilet seat from the commode and shattered the mirror. There were no gas masks behind the glass, according to the report.

Kantorski then slammed the lamp against the wall, flung it through the windows, tossed the mattresses out of the room and jumped out of the unit with his family. Moments later, the manager arrived because someone had complained of noise in the room.

The ordeal cost the hotel about $5,000 in damages, and a shard of glass tore a small wound in Kantorski's left leg.

Orange County deputies said a caller June 8, 2009, told a guest at the Best Western Airport Inn to activate the fire sprinkler and alarm because of a gas leak. The guest followed orders and ruined the room and her personal belongings.

There were no gas leaks in either incident.

Hotel industry trains employees

Members of Central Florida's hotel and hospitality industry said they have trained workers to watch out for these pranksters to avoid property damage.

"We're glad the [Orange County] Sheriff's Office has been keeping an eye on these and getting to hotel employees prior to anything happening anywhere," said Brian Martin, communications director for Visit Orlando, formerly known as Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Martin and Camacho have been working to inform hotels of the pranks. Martin credits those efforts as the reasons possible victims will not fall prey to these pranksters.

Camacho said he sent several bulletins and tips to hotels in 2009 so they could share them with their employees and resent them after the calls in early February.

"What we did worked," Camacho said. "That means we didn't waste law-enforcement time and money, and we avoided unfortunate damages to our guests and hotels."

wpacheco@tribune.com or 407-420-6262.

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To see more of The Orlando Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.OrlandoSentinel.com.

Copyright (c) 2011, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit www.mctinfoservices.com.



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