FBI raids Skype prankster's home after hundreds of fake emergency calls

Prank calls have probably been around about as long as the telephone system has been, but some pranksters use Skype to place prank calls. Some people think prank calls are funny, but the FBI was not at all amused.


The Smoking Gun reported the FBI raided the home of a 20-year-old Wisconsin man who was suspected of using Skype to make hundreds of calls to toll free emergency service numbers for the purpose of reporting fake emergencies to dispatchers at sheriff's departments. An FBI affidavit reported that deputies responded to many "false reports of individuals in danger, some of whom purportedly suffered life threatening injuries."

The FBI investigation started after the Florida St. Johns County Sheriff's Office reported having received around 180 pranks calls in January. One call reported the caller's six-year-old daughter had stopped breathing. Another prank call involved a man allegedly wanting to be arrested and waiting at a McDonald's restroom with his "five year old girlfriend." TSM reported, "Fearing that a child was in danger, seven Florida deputies responded to eight McDonald's locations, while five dispatchers worked for about two hours " before it was decided the call was yet another hoax.

The hoax caller is suspected of placing other prank calls to emergency dispatchers with the Rice County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota. The phone numbers for the pranked calls were spoofed, hiding the real phone number used and making it appear as if other phone numbers placed the calls.

Detective Gazdick  served a subpoena on Neutral Tandem Switching which showed many calls using Skype software to a specific 1-800 number from user "mseckar." Then the detective served Skype with a subpoena for information about "mseckar" to find out the date, IP address, and email address used when "mseckar" registered his Skype account. This also led to other IP addresses and times used to connect to other dispatchers at toll free emergency service phone numbers that had also received prank calls. The registered email address for the Skype account was on Yahoo, so Yahoo was also served with a subpoena to determine IP and full name of Mason Seckar associated with the account.

FBI Agent Sean Pruitt downloaded Skype onto his FBI computer, searched for mseckar, and captured a screenshot. His affidavit states that an individual at a specific address in Wisconsin is "using a computer /  telephone at this residence to annoy, abuse, or threaten the recipient of the calls and also to transmit threats to injure the person or another." Due to an interest in airplane aerobatics that Seckar had stated during a prank call, Agent Pruitt tracked that back to the "creator/administrator of a Facebook page devoted to AirVenture" which featured airplane shows with aerobatic teams.

The Smoking Gun has a history of unmasking members of Pranknet who make illegal calls and broadcast them live. One such hoax call resulted in $115,000 worth of water damage at a Nebraska Holiday Inn after a caller convinced an employee to set off the sprinkler system. Another victim included a military veteran who was too humiliated to press charges.

Prank calls are funny to some people, but it seems childish and mean-spirited to me. According to the New York Times, a good prank simulates a crisis without being the real thing. The psychology behind pranks ranges from experts calling it bullied harassment to "a kind of flattery." Dr. Kathleen D. Vohs, a consumer psychologist at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, claimed, "Being duped holds up this mirror to people, and may in fact show them where they are on the scale - too trusting or too vigilant." When people replay the prank over in their head, thinking how they could have reacted differently, feeling like they should have known better, it can "kick-start new behaviors, new self-exploration and, ultimately, self-improvement," said Neal Roese, a psychologist at the University of Illinois.

Skype, like traditional calls, can also be used by criminal social engineers for phishing. Most phishing scams involve email or spoofed websites to trick consumers, like Operation Phish Phry in which 46 people charged have been convicted. However, the Office of Inadequate Security received notice from a reader who has gotten phishing phone calls since the Epsilon breach, and asked if anyone else has. "If you do get a phishing attempt, let the Secret Service know: phishing-report@us.cert.gov"

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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