eBay in the wrong after stalking and harrassing critics

Less bidding, more war.
15 January 2024

Is there more to eBay than your friendly neighborhood e-shopping marketplace? Photograph: Matt Slocum/AP

• The intimidation of the Steiners by eBay is the stuff of movie legend.
• A campaign of harrassment was intended to “take down that woman.”
• The parcels sent to the Steiners verge on the psychotic.

eBay has agreed to pay a $3m criminal penalty after being convicted of the harassment and stalking of a Massachusetts couple, Ina and David Steiner, who had been subjected to threats and intimidation in the form of unpleasant parcels.

The Justice Department charged eBay with stalking, witness tampering and obstruction of justice after employees, who have already been individually prosecuted, ran an extensive scheme to intimidate the Steiners.

The Steiners received packages containing live spiders, cockroaches, a funeral wreath and a bloody pig mask – vacuum-packed and no doubt terrifying after the Steiners had to reject delivery of a foetal pig. But why were they targeted?

The Steiners - finally victorious over psychotic behavior at eBay.

Ina and David Steiner run EcommerceByte from their home. Photo via Boston Globe/Getty Images.

The birth of EcommerceBytes

When eBay launched in 1995, the Steiners were fascinated – they were keen second-hand shoppers already, so the online format was an intriguing change. The clunky website and not-so-savvy internet users of the time gave rise to an idea: the Steiners launched their website in 1999 and EcommerceBytes was born.

Today, the site has some 600,000 monthly users and most of its subscribers make a living selling items on eBay. In the world of ecommerce, EcommerceBytes is akin to The Times. But sellers aren’t the only readers.

Former US Attorney Andrew Lelling said the plan to target the couple, a “campaign of terror,” was formed in April 2019 at eBay. Devin Wenig, who was CEO of the company at the time, shared a link to a post Ina Steiner had written about his annual pay.

Chief communications officer Steve Wymer responded “We are going to crush this lady.”

About a month later, Ina wrote an article about a lawsuit brought by eBay accusing Amazon of poaching its sellers. Half an hour after it was published, Wenig sent a message saying “If you are ever going to take her down… now is the time.” Wymer later texted eBay security director Jim Baugh: “I want to see ashes. As long as it takes. Whatever it takes.”

According to investigators, Baugh then dispatched a security team to Boston, about 20 miles from where the Steiners live.

Baugh acted on behalf of eBay management to crush the Steiners.

Jim Baugh was sentenced to five years in jail in for his harrasment of the Steiners on behalf of eBay in 2022. Image: the Boston Globe via AP.

“Senior executives at eBay were frustrated with the newsletter’s tone and content, and with the comments posted beneath the newsletter’s articles,” the Department of Justice wrote in its Thursday announcement.

Wenig, who was the company’s CEO at the time of the stalking campaign, resigned from eBay in September 2019 with a $57 million exit package. He previously told 60 Minutes that he was appalled at what happened and would have stopped it had he been aware of it.

He hasn’t been criminally charged in the case and denies telling anyone to do anything illegal; his lawyer claims that “take her down” was taken out of context and referred to “lawful action” not the “series of bizarre criminal acts.”

Upon the announcement of eBay’s payment of the $3m fine, the Steiners wrote an article titled Victim Impact Statement in United States of America vs eBay Inc. and published it to EcommerceBytes, which is still active; Ina writes up to four articles for it daily.

“We were targeted because we gave eBay sellers a voice and because we reported facts that top executives didn’t like publicly laid bare,” Ina and David write.

“Since the government first arrested some of the perpetrators and filed charges in June 2020, we have heard from sellers who are fearful of communicating legitimate concerns to us (or to eBay and other marketplaces) because they fear retaliation.”

eBay vs the Steiners – an indicative case?

During 2023, we witnessed near enough every big-name tech company you can think of – be it social media giants Meta or good old Elon Musk’s Tesla – face allegations in court and pay out huge fines. Most recently, the Horizon scandal left the UK scandalized and only after decades has it been suggested that Fujitsu make pay some kind of reparation to the many sub-postmasters let down by its technological faults, and the subsequent horrifying practices of the UK Post Office.

To spell it out: just because giants like eBay and Meta need people to be successful, doesn’t mean they have anything but their own best interests at heart; in fact, because they rely on having a userbase, they’ll stop at nothing to ensure it continues to grow.

That means encouraging social media addiction among teens and silencing anyone who dares question the company’s practice. These huge corporations have the money to shoulder huge financial repercussions – as well as run terrorist-style intimidation campaigns, apparently – so is a fine really enough?

We’ve reached the point of holding tech companies accountable, but when will preventative bodies be formed? Who is ensuring more scandals like the ones being tried years after the fact aren’t currently happening in new forms?

Can we also address the insanity of someone like Jim Baugh being employed in eBay’s security division (while we’re at it, why does eBay have a security division?)? Known within the company as a loose cannon, Baugh claimed to be ex-CIA and had a reputation for demanding his team be on high alert at all times.

He offered to “neutralize Ina’s website in two weeks or less,” setting his team to work in Boston. The tactics used against the Steiners seem perfectly representative of a team, attuned to the possibility of constant attacks as if at war, finally being put to action.

So, perhaps the first step is not hiring sadists to uphold the security of a website made for reselling antiques.