(Bloomberg) -- Last summer, a suburban Boston couple who publish an online newsletter about EBay Inc. began calling the Natick Police Department to report peculiar and menacing forms of harassment: graffiti on their fence; mysterious deliveries of a funeral wreath and a book on surviving a spouse’s death; phony online advertisements about parties and yard sales that summoned strangers to their home.
The culprits left few clues, and police initially dismissed the reports as pranks. So the frustrated couple took matters into their own hands and began collecting evidence. Their home security camera caught video of a Ford Explorer parked near their house. They gathered license plate numbers from a black Dodge Caravan and a silver GMC they suspected of tailing them.
The tips prompted the police to take their concerns more seriously. Investigators linked rented vehicles to EBay employees and uncovered a stealthy campaign to frighten the couple, whose newsletter, EcommerceBytes, is an influential information source for the millions of merchants who peddle goods on the San Jose, California-based company’s marketplace.
“The victims in this case were proactive and diligent,” Natick Police Lt. Cara Rossi said. “Once they had photos of a car that they felt was surveilling them, they did counter-surveillance of their own, and detectives now had a lead to follow. This lead led them to Ebay.”
This week federal prosecutors unveiled an indictment charging six EBay employees with conducting a harassment campaign against the couple. The indictment also mentioned an “Executive 1” and “Executive 2,” which Bloomberg earlier identified as, respectively, former EBay Chief Executive Officer Devin Wenig and former public relations chief Steven Wymer. Neither Wenig nor Wymer were charged with crimes.
Ina and David Steiner have been publishing their newsletter, previously called AuctionBytes, since 1999. They delve into nitty-gritty details important to small merchants selling products on EBay, where 174 million shoppers around the world spend $85 billion a year.
The Steiners’ longevity has made their newsletter an influential part of the EBay community even as CEOs have come and gone. Merchants get updates about their livelihoods and provide news tips. Ina Steiner, a dogged reporter, is the newsletter’s editor; David Steiner is the publisher. Ina made such frequent calls to EBay’s communications department on behalf of sellers that some EBay employees joked she should be put on the customer service payroll.
But somewhere along the way, the relationship between the Steiners and EBay soured. Wenig was trying to fend off activist investors bent on breaking up the company and had become increasingly sensitive to tough media coverage.
Steiner publishes regular stories about the site, often with critical commentary. Online comments beneath the stories routinely become a no-holds-barred bashing of EBay executives.
Last August, Steiner published a story about a lawsuit EBay filed alleging Amazon.com Inc. employees created EBay accounts for the sole purpose of persuading its merchants to sell their goods on Amazon instead. “EBay’s CEO has been unable to stop a decline in marketplace sales, but trying to dissuade sellers from turning to Amazon (and trying to get Amazon to stop recruiting sellers) may not be the best tactic,” Steiner wrote.
There were 55 comments beneath the story, including one from someone called “thievesBay” that said: “Poor eBay. The little puppy continues trying to nip at the heels of the big dog. This will go nowhere just like their last attempt.”
In April of last year, according to the indictment, Wymer texted Wenig: “We are going to crush this lady.” The following month, during an exchange regarding Ina Steiner’s reporting, Wenig texted Wymer: “I couldn’t care less what she says.” Then, seconds later, he added, “Take her down.”
Before long, according to the indictment, the harassment campaign was underway, with the alleged perpetrators sending live cockroaches to the couple and trying to put a GPS tracking device on their Toyota Rav4.
Prosecutors claim EBay’s security director James Baugh and his underling David Harville led the elaborate campaign with help from four other EBay employees. Even as the Steiners gathered evidence that directed police toward them, the employees allegedly plotted to throw police off the trail by erasing messages and social media accounts, lying to investigators and trying to cast the Steiners as “crazy.”
It didn’t work. In late August, the alleged harassers hatched a plan using the messaging platform WhatsApp to contact the Natick Police Department and the Steiners pretending to offer EBay’s help with the investigation in order to glean information and steer the probe elsewhere.
Ina Steiner wasn’t having it. Shortly after connecting with the couple by phone, one of the alleged harassers messaged his colleagues, according to the indictment: “[Victim 1] said talk to the detective and then hung up the phone.” Days later, EBay put Baugh, Harville and one other employee on administrative leave after collecting work phones that were turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
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