eBay to pay $3 million after couple became the target of harassment, stalking

Inside the eBay stalking scandal
The eBay stalking scandal: How a couple became the target of harassment | 60 Minutes 13:08

E-commerce giant eBay agreed to pay a $3 million criminal penalty in connection with the harassment and stalking of a Massachusetts couple, acting U.S. Attorney Joshua Levy said Thursday. 

The couple, Ina and David Steiner, had been subjected to threats and bizarre deliveries, including live spiders, cockroaches, a funeral wreath and a bloody pig mask in August 2019.

Thursday's fine comes after several eBay employees ran a harassment and intimidation campaign against the Steiners, who publish a news website focusing on players in the e-commerce industry. 

"eBay engaged in absolutely horrific, criminal conduct. The company's employees and contractors involved in this campaign put the victims through pure hell, in a petrifying campaign aimed at silencing their reporting and protecting the eBay brand," Levy said. "We left no stone unturned in our mission to hold accountable every individual who turned the victims' world upside-down through a never-ending nightmare of menacing and criminal acts."

What were the criminal charges against eBay?

The Justice Department criminally charged eBay with two counts of stalking through interstate travel, two counts of stalking through electronic communications services, one count of witness tampering and one count of obstruction of justice. The company agreed to pay $3 million as part of a deferred prosecution agreement.

Under the agreement, eBay will be required to retain an independent corporate compliance monitor for three years, officials said, to "ensure that eBay's senior leadership sets a tone that makes compliance with the law paramount, implements safeguards to prevent future criminal activity, and makes clear to every eBay employee that the idea of terrorizing innocent people and obstructing investigations will not be tolerated," Levy said.

Why were the Steiners being harassed?

Former U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said the plan to target the Steiners, which he described as a "campaign of terror," was hatched in April 2019 at eBay. Devin Wenig, eBay's CEO at the time, shared a link to a post Ina Steiner had written about his annual pay. The company's chief communications officer, Steve Wymer, responded: "We are going to crush this lady."

About a month later, Wenig texted: "Take her down." Prosecutors said Wymer later texted eBay security director Jim Baugh

"I want to see ashes. As long as it takes. Whatever it takes," Wymer wrote. 

Investigators said Baugh set up a meeting with security staff and dispatched a team to Boston, about 20 miles from where the Steiners live. 

"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. 

What happened to the Steiners? 

The Steiners started being bombarded with newsletters they'd never signed up for in August 2019: Sin City Fetish Night, the Satanic Temple, the Communist Party and dozens of others. Then harassment started on social media.

Three days later, the Steiners got a strange call. 

White-haired woman and bald man standing in a park
Ina and David Steiner are pictured in Natick, Mass., on July 30, 2021. The Steiners, who run an ecommerce newsletter, sued eBay over harassment and stalking. Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

"Somebody left a voicemail for us, saying they couldn't fulfill the order for a wet specimen. And David was the one who called. And he said, 'What is a wet specimen?' And, and it was a pig fetus," Ina Steiner told 60 Minutes' Sharyn Alfonsi last year. "That's when I really, my heart sank, because I thought, 'Who might be angry at something I wrote?' And I couldn't figure it out. I mean, we were, we were desperately trying to think, 'Who could it be?'"

Pornography addressed to David Steiner was sent to the Steiners' neighbors. The couple's home was listed on social media as the site of yard sales and sex parties. And then a book about surviving the loss of a spouse, addressed to David Steiner, arrived at their Massachusetts doorstep.

"It was a death threat. And to be followed up a few short days later with a funeral wreath, an expensive funeral wreath," David Steiner told 60 Minutes. "It only confirmed that these people were going to hurt or kill Ina."

Packages and threats kept coming for weeks, even as police investigated and the Steiners installed security cameras. The Steiners started sleeping in separate rooms, so that if someone broke in, at least one of them would be able to call the police or escape, David Steiner said. 

Tracing the harassment to eBay

One day, David Steiner noticed he was being followed by a van and later by a car. He snapped a picture of the license plate, which broke open the case. 

Local police tracked the license plate and traced the number back to a rental agency where Veronica Zea, an eBay employee, had rented the van. 

Ten months later, federal authorities announced the indictments of several eBay employees and contractors, including Zea. 

Before Thursday's agreement was reached, seven people who worked for eBay's Safety and Security unit, including two former cops and a former nanny, all pleaded guilty to stalking or cyberstalking charges. There wasn't enough evidence to file criminal charges against Wenig or Wymer, even with the texts they'd sent, Lelling told 60 Minutes last year. Wymer was fired for cause. He has said his texts were mischaracterized and that he learned of the employees' conduct only after the fact.

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. 

In a statement Thursday, eBay said the company took responsibility for the misconduct of its former employees.

"The company's conduct in 2019 was wrong and reprehensible," current CEO Jamie Iannone said. "From the moment eBay first learned of the 2019 events, eBay cooperated fully and extensively with law enforcement authorities. We continue to extend our deepest apologies to the Steiners for what they endured. Since these events occurred, new leaders have joined the company and eBay has strengthened its policies, procedures, controls and training. eBay remains committed to upholding high standards of conduct and ethics and to making things right with the Steiners."

The Steiners respond

The Steiners previously filed a civil suit against eBay and former executives after the 2019 cyberstalking campaign. 

"With today's Deferred Prosecution Agreement, eBay is not required to stand before a judge for sentencing, but we feel it's important that we, as victims, be heard," the Steiners wrote Thursday on their website, EcommerceBytes

eBay to pay $3 million after couple became the target of harassment, stalking 00:33

The couple said they will continue to push for answers and noted the civil trial is scheduled for March 3, 2025. The Steiners said they want to "ensure that no corporation ever feels that the option exists for them to squash a person's First Amendment rights.

"As victims of despicable crimes meant to destroy our lives and our livelihood, we felt it was vital to do everything in our power to make sure such a thing never happened to anyone else," they said in their statement Thursday.

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