‘Crush This Lady.’ Inside
eBay’s Bizarre Campaign Against a Blog Critic.
orchestrated deliveries of live cockroaches, pornographic videos and a
mask of a bloody pig’s head
The box of live cockroaches delivered to their door was the last straw
for David and Ina Steiner.
For more than two decades, the professional collectors ran a niche
e-commerce blog out of their home in the Boston suburbs, with a focus on
Inc. AMZN -1.09% and eBay Inc. EBAY -2.07%
Then, last August, the couple started receiving threatening emails and
tweets. Not long after, according to federal investigators, a package
arrived with a mask of a bloody pig’s head. Next, they received a
funeral wreath. Neighbors were sent pornographic videos addressed to one
of the Steiners. Strange cars seemed to follow them around their small
town of Natick, Mass.
They repeatedly called the local police, who say they initially thought
the incidents might be pranks. The Steiners photographed one of the
suspicious vehicles tailing them. With the photo, the local police
tracked the license plate to a rental car checked out to a Veronica Zea,
staying at Boston’s Ritz-Carlton hotel along with a man named David
Harville, according to an affidavit from a Federal Bureau of
Investigation agent working the case.
Then the police discovered something really curious: Both Ms. Zea and
Mr. Harville worked for eBay, the $34 billion online marketplace based
more than 3,000 miles away in San Jose, Calif. The once dominant site
was a frequent target of the Steiners’ blog posts on their site, called
That discovery kicked off a criminal investigation into an alleged
corporate harassment campaign that reached into eBay’s executive ranks.
The campaign was as bold as it was bizarre, beginning with pranks
inspired by the 1988 movie “Johnny Be Good” and escalating to more
sinister threats and stalking, according to the affidavit.
Last Monday, the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of
Massachusetts said it charged six former eBay executives and
employees, all part of its security team, with taking part in a
weekslong harassment campaign that included threatening emails and
tweets, fake Craigslist posts and the mysterious deliveries.
Now the U.S. attorney’s office is investigating whether eBay targeted
any other critics with harassment campaigns, according to a person
familiar with the investigation.
This account of what happened is based on more than two dozen
interviews with current and former eBay executives and people familiar
with the company, government and police officials and documents released
by the U.S. attorney’s office, including the affidavit from FBI agent
The alleged cyberstalking campaign was launched soon after Devin Wenig,
eBay’s chief executive at the time, and his chief communications
officer, Steve Wymer, embarked on a more aggressive public-relations
strategy that included challenging critics such as ECommerceBytes,
people familiar with the matter say.
As part of that strategy, eBay executives tried to prove their
suspicion that its rival Amazon.com Inc. was helping to fund
ECommerceBytes, two of these people said. They ultimately didn’t find
any evidence of that. An Amazon spokesman said the company has never
funded the site.
Mr. Wenig’s wife, Cindy Wenig, had complained to eBay’s security team
about the tone of ECommerceBytes’ reader comments about her husband,
particularly after an unknown man had shown up at their house.
Mr. Wenig, who left the company last fall, said in an interview
he didn’t order any type of harassment of the Steiners, nor was he aware
of the security team’s efforts. Mr. Wenig said he was in a monthlong
sabbatical in Italy when the alleged activity took place last August and
didn’t find out the details until they were made public on June 15.
“It’s totally embarrassing, and it’s just ridiculous,” he said. “It’s
so not the culture of the company.”
Mr. Wymer, his former communications chief, said, “I would never
condone or participate in any such activity.”
The woman said to have rented the car, Ms. Zea, an eBay contractor who
worked as an intelligence analyst, declined to comment. Mr. Harville,
eBay’s former director of global resiliency, didn’t respond to requests
for comment. They were two of the six charged with conspiracy to commit
cyberstalking and conspiracy to tamper with witnesses.
When Mr. Wenig took over eBay in 2015, the company had been struggling
to compete with a surging Amazon in the marketplace business. He was
intent on restoring it to its glory days as a tech darling. He sometimes
wore a black T-shirt with a white pirate emblem, given to him by
employees, to encourage disruptive thinking. He redesigned eBay’s logo
and poured millions of dollars into renovating its San Jose
Yet even as he sought to aggressively recast eBay as a Silicon Valley
underdog, he often reacted forcefully to what he perceived as negative
coverage of the company. Former employees say he could be set off by
even the smallest of slights, including reader comments on blog posts,
YouTube videos and media reports about his compensation. Some of his
concerns about critical coverage or comments were voiced in text
messages he exchanged with Mr. Wymer.
After a May 31, 2019, post on the Steiners’ site analyzed Mr. Wenig’s
remarks at a shareholder meeting, according to the affidavit, the CEO
texted Mr. Wymer. “I couldn’t care less what she says,” he said,
referring to Ms. Steiner. “Take her down.” Mr. Wenig said he was
referring to the aggressive media campaign.
EBay has at other times pressured detractors to remove negative
In late 2018, eBay executives pushed longtime seller Casey Parris to
remove what the company perceived to be a negative YouTube video about
the company, saying the company “didn’t like the tone” and threatened a
lawsuit if it wasn’t removed, Mr. Parris said.
When he asked his contact at eBay how the company would have even seen
his video, Mr. Parris said, he was told that its security team was
watching all the time. He said he recently told eBay about the incident
and the company said it would investigate. “I’m still scared by it,” he
Another seller, Danni Ackerman, said eBay stopped inviting her to
events after she started a YouTube channel that criticized policy
changes that affected sellers, as part of what she called the company’s
A spokeswoman for eBay said the company “has always sought out candid
and constructive feedback from all of our stakeholders, in particular
our seller community. We deeply value this input.”
In a blog post addressed to sellers last week, Jordan Sweetnam, head of
eBay’s marketplace business in the U.S., Canada and Latin America, said
the alleged acts by eBay security officials “were isolated incidents and
not a systemic issue.” EBay held a private Zoom call Thursday for its
sellers, assuring them that all the bad apples at the company were gone,
and that eBay was looking into individual claims, according to a person
familiar with the call.
ECommerceBytes was founded in 1999 after Mr. Steiner, 61 years old, an
auction enthusiast and video producer, had difficulty placing a listing
of video equipment on eBay. Figuring other sellers might also be having
similar trouble, the Steiners launched the site—then called
AuctionBytes.com—to help others navigate the online commerce world.
Ms. Steiner, 58, a longtime writer and editor, writes most of the
website’s content. Both of the Steiners are collectors, browsing garage
sales in their free time.
“Here was a new market that no one was writing about, so they began to
cover the market in an agnostic way,” said Gary Sohmers, an early eBay
seller and longtime appraiser who knows the Steiners. The Steiners
didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Though obscure, the site built a significant following among eBay
sellers, with several thousand subscriptions by 2019. The reader
comments on the posts were at times snarky and personal.
Some taunted eBay executives, including then-CEO Meg Whitman and John
Donahoe, now CEO of Nike Inc. A comment from 2017 called Mr. Wenig the
devil, according to the affidavit.
In January 2019, hedge fund Elliott Management Corp. disclosed a more
than 4% stake in eBay and said the company should consider selling its
StubHub ticketing business and classifieds-ads unit and focus on
repairing its core marketplace.
By early that year, Mr. Wenig and his public-relations team had decided
to alter the company’s public-relations strategy. Rather than responding
to interview requests or sending out news releases, they planned to take
a more aggressive approach with publications that wrote negative stories
about eBay, according to people familiar with the decision.
In the recent interview, Mr. Wenig said he didn’t spend any more or
less time than the average CEO thinking about media coverage. “I think
all CEOs care about the coverage of their company,” he said.
In April 2019, Ms. Steiner wrote a short article about Mr. Wenig’s
compensation, based on a public Securities and Exchange Commission
filing, titled “eBay CEO Devin Wenig Earns 152 Times That of Employees.”
A commenter posted: “What a foolish Board. What an overpaid empty suit.
What a joke.”
According to the affidavit, Mr. Wymer, then eBay’s communications
chief, texted Mr. Wenig that they would “crush this lady.”
The Wall Street Journal wrote a 164-word article about Mr. Wenig’s
$18.2 million compensation around the same time, with the headline “Ebay
Chief Executive Wenig Got Raise in 2018.”
“F— them,” Mr. Wenig texted Mr. Wymer, according to the affidavit. “The
journal is next on the list” after Ms. Steiner. After brainstorming ways
to go after the Journal, eBay employees ultimately abandoned the effort,
according to people familiar with the plans.
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EBay executives decided to examine Amazon’s relationship with
ECommerceBytes, hoping to be able to point out to a reporter or publish
a blog post on its website arguing that it was improper for a
publication to accept money from an e-commerce giant it was writing
about, according to people familiar with those plans. EBay also is suing
three Amazon employees who it claims worked to illegally recruit its
By the summer of 2019, James Baugh, then eBay’s director of safety and
security, was laying the groundwork for an alleged campaign to silence
the Steiners, according to the affidavit. Mr. Baugh, a native of
Arkansas and longtime security executive, joined the company in 2016.
At one meeting, the affidavit said, Mr. Baugh showed his team a clip
from the 1988 film comedy “Johnny Be Good,” in which two friends arrange
for a series of odd, unwanted deliveries to their football coach. Mr.
Baugh allegedly said he wanted something similar to happen to the
Mr. Wenig’s wife had texted Mr. Baugh in July about a reader comment
that called Mr. Wenig a “con artist and thief,” under an ECommerceBytes
article. “The author gets people worked up with the way she skews her
stories,” Ms. Wenig wrote, according to the affidavit.
A spokeswoman said Ms. Wenig was concerned about the safety of her
family after one commenter threatened a “crash landing” for Mr. Wenig
shortly before the family was planning to fly to Italy.
ECommerceBytes published several more negative stories about eBay
around the time of its annual seller conference in Las Vegas in July
2019. A text exchange cited in the affidavit indicates that after being
alerted to the stories by Mr. Wymer, Mr. Wenig texted him: “If you are
ever going to take her down, now is the time.”
“On it,” Mr. Wymer responded.
He texted Mr. Baugh the message from Mr. Wenig, adding, “She is biased
troll who needs to get BURNED DOWN.”
“Copy that,” Mr. Baugh said. “I have a plan B. I will put it in
In meetings with his analysts and other members of eBay’s security
team, Mr. Baugh warned that the campaign had to be kept confidential,
but told them he had support of executive management.
According to the affidavit, the planned campaign against the Steiners
was supposed to have two parts. After the initial harassment, eBay would
begin a “white-knight strategy” of offering to help the victims end the
mysterious communications and deliveries, the affidavit said. Local
police stepped in before that happened.
Mr. Baugh, who also was charged by the U.S. attorney’s office, didn’t
respond to requests for comment, nor did his lawyer.
In Natick, Ms. Steiner began getting dozens of emails and newsletters
she hadn’t signed up for with subjects like “Cat Faeries,” and “the
Satanic Temple.” An anonymous Twitter
user sent her private messages, demanding her response and then
threatening “I guess im goin to have to get ur attention another way
On Craigslist, a post popped up with the Steiners’ address, and a title
“M/F couple seeking activity partner.” Another post announced “BLOCK
PARTY in Natick - Let’s have some fun!”, again with the couple’s
address, and inviting people to stop by “anytime of day or night.”
Once the police connected the activity to eBay, the executives involved
allegedly tried to cover their tracks.
Mr. Baugh sent a message from his personal cellphone to Mr. Wymer,
saying he and members of his team were cooperating, that they had done
nothing illegal, and asking “if there is any way to get some top cover
that would be great.” Mr. Baugh directed his team members to delete
their WhatsApp and phone data, according to the affidavit.
The eBay board’s audit committee learned of the investigation in late
August, and the broader board was briefed the following month during a
five-hour call led by lawyers at Morgan Lewis & Bockius, according
to people familiar with the matter. The board was told the investigation
found no evidence that Mr. Wenig was aware of the actions, these people
The company placed Messrs. Baugh and Harville and another member of the
security team on administrative leave on Aug. 30. The company later
fired all six who were charged, and Mr. Wymer.
When Mr. Wenig was pushed out as CEO in late September, the directors
said the main reasons were the company’s financial performance and his
disagreement with a large investor about the best path forward for the
company, according to people familiar with the matter. The investigation
also played a role, and directors blamed him for setting a cutthroat
tone at the top. Mr. Wenig received a $57 million exit package.
On the day the U.S. attorney’s office announced its charges, Ms.
Steiner posted the press release to ECommerceBytes, with no further
—Elisa Cho, Cara Lombardo and Jim Oberman
contributed to this article.
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