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Internet prank directed at Aberdeen hotel gains national attention

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A bizarre Internet directed prank that caused extensive damage to an Aberdeen hotel early Friday morning received national coverage Monday morning when the story was featured on ABC Television's"Good Morning America."

The circumstances leading to the damage at the Holiday Inn Express in Aberdeen were hardly a new phenomenon, as similar incidents have been reported around the country since at least 2009, according to the report on "Good Morning America," which referred to the article published Friday morning on http://www.exploreharford.com.

According to a notice of investigation from the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office, a guest at the Holiday Inn Express in the 1000 block of Beards Hill Road was contacted by a website http://www.pranku.net "and was told a gas leak had occurred in the hotel and was subsequently coaxed into breaking off the hotel room sprinkler heard with the toilet bowl cover, causing water to flow into eight rooms and the floor below."

Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Mark Bilger said similar pranks "apparently" have been "going on" in other states.

"This is the first experience we've had with this type of incident," Bilger said.

Bilger said the fire marshal's office didn't have any further information about the prank or how it was put in motion.

Both the fire suppression system and the hotel's alarm were activated, prompting 25 firefighters from the Aberdeen Fire Department and the Aberdeen Proving Ground Fire Department to respond to the five-story hotel near the I-95 interchange at about 1:25 a.m. Friday, the fire marshal's office said.

Damage to the structure and contents are estimated at $50,000 each, according to the fire marshal's office.

The general manager of the hotel declined to comment Friday.

The pranku.net website is based in Canada, created by a group calling itself "prank net university," according to "Good Morning America" reporter George Curley, who said members listen in chat rooms to pranks as they unfold and discuss how to make them more convincing.

In addition to sprinklers being activated, guests encouraged by pranku.net have broken windows, smashed in television sets and even run naked down hallways. The group also hijacked the telephone system of one hotel, Curley said.

Using the top of a toilet tank to smash windows or break fire suppression sprinkler heads, as happened in Aberdeen, appears to be a favorite MO of the pranku.net pranksters.

A woman from Sahuarita, Ariz., e-mailed Monday to say that her husband experienced the same thing early Saturday morning at Best Western in Leland, N.C. Her husband was in town to see his new granddaughter, she wrote, and flooded two floors of a brand new hotel because of the prank.

"To be humiliated like that has taken a precious part of him," she wrote. "This needs to be stopped. The hotel or persons need to contact the FBI."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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