‘Crush This Lady.’ Inside eBay’s Bizarre Campaign Against a Blog Critic

    ‘Crush This Lady.’ Inside eBay’s Bizarre Campaign Against a Blog Critic
    ‘Crush This Lady.’ Inside eBay’s Bizarre Campaign Against a Blog Critic

    The field of stay cockroaches delivered to their door was the final straw for David and Ina Steiner.

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    For greater than twenty years, the skilled collectors ran a distinct segment e-commerce weblog out of their dwelling within the Boston suburbs, with a concentrate on Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -0.12% and eBay Inc. EBAY -0.48%

    Then, final August, the couple began receiving threatening emails and tweets. Not lengthy after, in keeping with federal investigators, a package deal arrived with a masks of a bloody pig’s head. Subsequent, they acquired a funeral wreath. Neighbors had been despatched pornographic movies addressed to one of many Steiners. Unusual vehicles appeared to comply with them round their small city of Natick, Mass.

    They repeatedly referred to as the native police, who say they initially thought the incidents is likely to be pranks. The Steiners photographed one of many suspicious autos tailing them. With the photograph, the native police tracked the license plate to a rental automobile checked out to a Veronica Zea, staying at Boston’s Ritz-Carlton resort together with a person named David Harville, in keeping with an affidavit from a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent working the case.

    Then the police found one thing actually curious: Each Ms. Zea and Mr. Harville labored for eBay, the $34 billion on-line market based mostly greater than 3,000 miles away in San Jose, Calif. The as soon as dominant web site was a frequent goal of the Steiners’ weblog posts on their web site, referred to as ECommerceBytes.

    Among the items sent anonymously to the Steiners was a grief-themed book and a bloody pig mask. PHOTO: U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS (2)
    Among the many gadgets despatched anonymously to the Steiners was a grief-themed ebook and a bloody pig masks. PHOTO: U.S. ATTORNEY’S OFFICE, DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS (2)

    That discovery kicked off a prison investigation into an alleged company harassment marketing campaign that reached into eBay’s govt ranks. The marketing campaign was as daring because it was weird, starting with pranks impressed by the 1988 film “Johnny Be Good” and escalating to extra sinister threats and stalking, in keeping with the affidavit.

    Final Monday, the U.S. lawyer’s workplace for the District of Massachusetts said it charged six former eBay executives and employees, all a part of its safety group, with participating in a weekslong harassment marketing campaign that included threatening emails and tweets, faux Craigslist posts and the mysterious deliveries.

    Now the U.S. lawyer’s workplace is investigating whether or not eBay focused another critics with harassment campaigns, in keeping with an individual aware of the investigation.

    This account of what occurred is predicated on greater than two dozen interviews with present and former eBay executives and other people aware of the corporate, authorities and police officers and paperwork launched by the U.S. lawyer’s workplace, together with the affidavit from FBI agent Mark Wilson.

    The alleged cyberstalking marketing campaign was launched quickly after Devin Wenig, eBay’s chief govt on the time, and his chief communications officer, Steve Wymer, launched into a extra aggressive public-relations technique that included difficult critics similar to ECommerceBytes, individuals aware of the matter say.

    As a part of that technique, eBay executives tried to show their suspicion that its rival Amazon.com Inc. was serving to to fund ECommerceBytes, two of those individuals stated. They in the end didn’t discover any proof of that. An Amazon spokesman stated the corporate has by no means funded the location.

    Mr. Wenig’s spouse, Cindy Lee Horowitz, had complained to eBay’s safety group in regards to the tone of ECommerceBytes’ reader feedback about her husband, significantly after an unknown man had proven up at their home.

    Mr. Wenig, who left the company last fall, stated in an interview he didn’t order any kind of harassment of the Steiners, nor was he conscious of the safety group’s efforts. Mr. Wenig stated he was in a monthlong sabbatical in Italy when the alleged exercise happened final August and didn’t discover out the main points till they had been made public on June 15.

    “It’s completely embarrassing, and it’s simply ridiculous,” he stated. “It’s so not the tradition of the corporate.”

    Mr. Wymer, his former communications chief, stated, “I’d by no means condone or take part in any such exercise.”

    Devin Wenig, who stepped down as eBay CEO last fall, said he didn’t order any type of harassment. PHOTO: JACOB KEPLER/BLOOMBERG NEWS
    Devin Wenig, who stepped down as eBay CEO final fall, stated he didn’t order any kind of harassment. PHOTO: JACOB KEPLER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

    The lady stated to have rented the automobile, Ms. Zea, an eBay contractor who labored as an intelligence analyst, declined to remark. Mr. Harville, eBay’s former director of world resiliency, didn’t reply to requests for remark. They had been 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 corporate had been struggling to compete with a surging Amazon within the market enterprise. He was intent on restoring it to its glory days as a tech darling. He typically wore a black T-shirt with a white pirate emblem, given to him by workers, to encourage disruptive considering. He redesigned eBay’s emblem and poured hundreds of thousands of {dollars} into renovating its San Jose headquarters.

    But whilst he sought to aggressively recast eBay as a Silicon Valley underdog, he usually reacted forcefully to what he perceived as unfavorable protection of the corporate. Former workers say he could possibly be set off by even the smallest of slights, together with reader feedback on weblog posts, YouTube movies and media stories about his compensation. A few of his issues about important protection or feedback had been voiced in textual content messages he exchanged with Mr. Wymer.

    After a Could 31, 2019, put up on the Steiners’ web site analyzed Mr. Wenig’s remarks at a shareholder assembly, in keeping with the affidavit, the CEO texted Mr. Wymer. “I couldn’t care much less what she says,” he stated, referring to Ms. Steiner. “Take her down.” Mr. Wenig stated he was referring to the aggressive media marketing campaign.

    EBay has at different occasions pressured detractors to take away unfavorable content material.

    In late 2018, eBay executives pushed longtime vendor Casey Parris to take away what the corporate perceived to be a unfavorable YouTube video in regards to the firm, saying the corporate “didn’t just like the tone” and threatened a lawsuit if it wasn’t eliminated, Mr. Parris stated.

    When he requested his contact at eBay how the corporate would have even seen his video, Mr. Parris stated, he was instructed that its safety group was watching on a regular basis. He stated he just lately instructed eBay in regards to the incident and the corporate stated it will examine. “I’m nonetheless scared by it,” he stated.

    One other vendor, Danni Ackerman, stated eBay stopped inviting her to occasions after she began a YouTube channel that criticized coverage adjustments that affected sellers, as a part of what she referred to as the corporate’s “bully tradition.”

    A spokeswoman for eBay stated the corporate “has at all times sought out candid and constructive suggestions from all of our stakeholders, particularly our vendor neighborhood. We deeply worth this enter.”

    In a weblog put up addressed to sellers final week, Jordan Sweetnam, head of eBay’s market enterprise within the U.S., Canada and Latin America, stated the alleged acts by eBay safety officers “had been remoted incidents and never a systemic challenge.” EBay held a non-public Zoom name Thursday for its sellers, assuring them that each one the unhealthy apples on the firm had been gone, and that eBay was trying into particular person claims, in keeping with an individual aware of the decision.

    ECommerceBytes was based in 1999 after Mr. Steiner, 61 years outdated, an public sale fanatic and video producer, had problem inserting a list of video gear on eBay. Figuring different sellers may also be having comparable bother, the Steiners launched the location—then referred to as AuctionBytes.com—to assist others navigate the web commerce world.

    Ms. Steiner, 58, a longtime author and editor, writes many of the web site’s content material. Each of the Steiners are collectors, shopping storage gross sales of their free time.

    “Right here was a brand new market that nobody was writing about, so that they started to cowl the market in an agnostic manner,” stated Gary Sohmers, an early eBay vendor and longtime appraiser who is aware of the Steiners. The Steiners didn’t reply to requests for remark.

    Although obscure, the location constructed a major following amongst eBay sellers, with a number of thousand subscriptions by 2019. The reader feedback on the posts had been at occasions snarky and private.

    Some taunted eBay executives, together with then-CEO Meg Whitman and John Donahoe, now CEO of Nike Inc. A remark from 2017 referred to as Mr. Wenig the satan, in keeping with the affidavit.

    Mr. Wenig, a New York transplant who as soon as ran the monetary and media companies at Thomson Reuters Markets LLC., turned CEO after eBay spun off payments giant PayPal Holdings Inc. in 2015.

    In January 2019, hedge fund Elliott Administration Corp. disclosed a greater than 4% stake in eBay and stated the corporate ought to contemplate promoting its StubHub ticketing enterprise and classifieds-ads unit and concentrate on repairing its core market.

    By early that 12 months, Mr. Wenig and his public-relations group had determined to change the corporate’s public-relations technique. Reasonably than responding to interview requests or sending out information releases, they deliberate to take a extra aggressive method with publications that wrote unfavorable tales about eBay, in keeping with individuals aware of the choice.

    Within the latest interview, Mr. Wenig stated he didn’t spend any roughly time than the typical CEO eager about media protection. “I feel all CEOs care in regards to the protection of their firm,” he stated.

    In April 2019, Ms. Steiner wrote a brief article about Mr. Wenig’s compensation, based mostly on a public Securities and Alternate Fee submitting, titled “eBay CEO Devin Wenig Earns 152 Instances That of Workers.” A commenter posted: “What a silly Board. What an overpaid empty go well with. What a joke.”

    Based on the affidavit, Mr. Wymer, then eBay’s communications chief, texted Mr. Wenig that they might “crush this girl.”

    The WSJ wrote a 164-word article about Mr. Wenig’s $18.2 million compensation across the similar time, with the headline “Ebay Chief Govt Wenig Obtained Elevate in 2018.” It ran on the Journal’s web site however not in its print newspaper.

    “F— them,” Mr. Wenig texted Mr. Wymer, in keeping with the affidavit. “The journal is subsequent on the checklist” after Ms. Steiner. After brainstorming methods to go after the Journal, eBay workers in the end deserted the trouble, in keeping with individuals aware of the plans.

    EBay executives determined to look at Amazon’s relationship with ECommerceBytes, hoping to have the ability to level out to a reporter or publish a weblog put up on its web site arguing that it was improper for a publication to simply accept cash from an e-commerce big it was writing about, in keeping with individuals aware of these plans. EBay is also suing three Amazon workers who it claims labored to illegally recruit its third-party sellers.

    By the summer season of 2019, James Baugh, then eBay’s director of security and safety, was laying the groundwork for an alleged marketing campaign to silence the Steiners, in keeping with the affidavit. Mr. Baugh, a local of Arkansas and longtime safety govt, joined the corporate in 2016.

    At one assembly, the affidavit stated, Mr. Baugh confirmed his group a clip from the 1988 movie comedy “Johnny Be Good,” wherein two buddies organize for a collection of wierd, undesirable deliveries to their soccer coach. Mr. Baugh allegedly stated he needed one thing just like occur to the Steiners.

    Ms. Horowitz, Mr. Wenig’s spouse, had texted Mr. Baugh in July a few reader remark that referred to as Mr. Wenig a “con artist and thief,” beneath an ECommerceBytes article. “The creator will get individuals labored up with the way in which she skews her tales,” Ms. Horowitz wrote, in keeping with the affidavit.

    A spokeswoman stated Ms. Horowitz was involved in regards to the security of her household after one commenter threatened a “crash touchdown” for Mr. Wenig shortly earlier than the household was planning to fly to Italy.

    In an August text exchange cited in an FBI affidavit, Steve Wymer, then the company’s chief communications officer, told eBay's former senior director of safety and security, James Baugh, that he would ‘embrace managing any bad fall out’ from actions taken against the Steiners. PHOTO: U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS
    In an August textual content change cited in an FBI affidavit, Steve Wymer, then the corporate’s chief communications officer, instructed eBay’s former senior director of security and safety, James Baugh, that he would ‘embrace managing any unhealthy fall out’ from actions taken towards the Steiners. PHOTO: U.S. ATTORNEY’S OFFICE, DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS

    ECommerceBytes printed a number of extra unfavorable tales about eBay across the time of its annual vendor convention in Las Vegas in July 2019. A textual content change cited within the affidavit signifies that after being alerted to the tales by Mr. Wymer, Mr. Wenig texted him: “If you’re ever going to take her down, now could be the time.”

    “On it,” Mr. Wymer responded.

    He texted Mr. Baugh the message from Mr. Wenig, including, “She is biased troll who must get BURNED DOWN.”

    “Copy that,” Mr. Baugh stated. “I’ve a plan B. I’ll put it in movement.”

    In conferences along with his analysts and different members of eBay’s safety group, Mr. Baugh warned that the marketing campaign needed to be stored confidential, however instructed them he had help of govt administration.

    Based on the affidavit, the deliberate marketing campaign towards the Steiners was purported to have two elements. After the preliminary harassment, eBay would start a “white-knight technique” of providing to assist the victims finish the mysterious communications and deliveries, the affidavit stated. Native police stepped in earlier than that occurred.

    Mr. Baugh, who additionally was charged by the U.S. lawyer’s workplace, didn’t reply to requests for remark, nor did his lawyer.

    In Natick, Ms. Steiner started getting dozens of emails and newsletters she hadn’t signed up for with topics like “Cat Faeries,” and “the Satanic Temple.” An nameless Twitter person despatched her non-public messages, demanding her response after which threatening “I suppose im goin to need to get ur consideration one other manner bitch…”

    An anonymous Craigslist ad targeting the Steiners. PHOTO: U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS
    An nameless Craigslist advert focusing on the Steiners. PHOTO: U.S. ATTORNEY’S OFFICE, DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS

    On Craigslist, a put up popped up with the Steiners’ tackle, and a title “M/F couple in search of exercise companion.” One other put up introduced “BLOCK PARTY in Natick – Let’s have some enjoyable!”, once more with the couple’s tackle, and alluring individuals to cease by “anytime of day or evening.”

    As soon as the police linked the exercise to eBay, the executives concerned allegedly tried to cowl their tracks.

    Mr. Baugh despatched a message from his private cellphone to Mr. Wymer, saying he and members of his group had been cooperating, that they’d accomplished nothing unlawful, and asking “if there’s any strategy to get some prime cowl that may be nice.” Mr. Baugh directed his group members to delete their WhatsApp and cellphone information, in keeping with the affidavit.

    The eBay board’s audit committee discovered of the investigation in late August, and the broader board was briefed the next month throughout a five-hour name led by attorneys at Morgan Lewis & Bockius, in keeping with individuals aware of the matter. The board was instructed the investigation discovered no proof that Mr. Wenig was conscious of the actions, these individuals stated.

    The corporate positioned Messrs. Baugh and Harville and one other member of the safety group on administrative depart on Aug. 30. The corporate later fired all six who had been charged, and Mr. Wymer.

    U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling announced charges against the former eBay employees on June 15. PHOTO: CJ GUNTHER/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK
    U.S. Legal professional for Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling introduced expenses towards the previous eBay workers on June 15. PHOTO: CJ GUNTHER/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

    When Mr. Wenig was pushed out as CEO in late September, the administrators stated the primary causes had been the corporate’s monetary efficiency and his disagreement with a big investor about the most effective path ahead for the corporate, in keeping with individuals aware of the matter. The investigation additionally performed a task, and administrators blamed him for setting a cutthroat tone on the prime. Mr. Wenig acquired a $57 million exit package deal.

    On the day the U.S. lawyer’s workplace introduced its expenses, Ms. Steiner posted the press launch to ECommerceBytes, with no additional remark.