|By Rebecca Beitsch, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 14, 2009 - --The prank that left an Orlando hotel with more than $5,000 in damages last week was not the first of its kind in Central Florida after all.
About a month ago, a frantic man claiming to be a maintenance worker tricked a hotel guest into setting off the sprinkler system at the Best Western Airport Inn, soaking everything in ankle-deep water.
"The guy was screaming at me. He kept telling me to hurry up because he had other people to call," said Bristol, Penn. resident Terri Thompson, who was duped into flooding the hotel near the Orlando International Airport.
Guests such as Thompson are getting tricked in similar pranks across the country, prompting hoteliers and industry officials to urge the public to think twice before carrying out destructive instructions from someone over the phone.
Hotels usually don't call each room during an emergency.
"Many hotels have PA systems or automated phone messages that play during an emergency," said Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Dover also said that hotels will give common emergency tips like not using an elevator to exit the building, but they will never tell guests to smash up their rooms.
Mark Kantorski, an Indian River County deputy, trashed Room 204 of the Hilton Garden Inn off of South Semoran Boulevard on July 6, following the instructions his wife relayed from a person who claimed to be a front-desk clerk.
Last week, officials in Central Florida said that was the first prank of its kind in the region. But someone who contacted the Orlando Sentinel said the same kind of ruse was pulled off a month earlier at Best Western Airport Inn.
A spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's office said he did not know about the earlier incident last week.
In both cases in Orange County, as well as in others sweeping the nation, callers warn hotel guests about fictional gas leaks.
Then guests are following instructions such as putting wet towels under doors, smashing windows, setting off sprinklers and triggering fire alarms.
Why are people falling for it?
It starts off with small steps, said Alisha Janowsky, a social psychology professor at the University of Central Florida. If someone pretending to be an authority figure is perceived as legitimate, people are likely to go along with it.
"If you get people to say yes to one thing, it's harder to say no later on," Janowsky said. "If they're starting out with put a wet towel under the door, it might be easier to get them to do other things later. You don't start off with 'Hey, throw the mattress out the window.'"
The manipulated guests are not being charged criminally and they are not paying for the damages.
"Calling under false pretenses to encourage people to tear up a room they might have to pay for is annoying, is harassing, and is a second-degree misdemeanor" under Florida's harassing phone-call law, said Bob Dekle, a law professor at the University of Florida.
He said prosecuting the pranksters will be tough, even though there are people going online and boasting about being responsible.
"The mechanism for discovering where a phone call came from is better than it was, but the mechanisms to evade discovery are better too," Dekles aid.
Thompson, the woman who flooded the Best Western Airport Inn, feels victimized. She says hotel workers told her she caused $50,000 in damages, though the company didn't return calls from the Orlando Sentinel.
"We're so lucky we didn't get hurt," said Thompson. "In our rush, we forgot to unplug the fridge, and we're walking around this room full of water. We could've gotten electrocuted."
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