One of the most explosive Silicon Valley scandals of all time was a poorly run, easily discovered scheme inspired by a 1980s teen comedy, conducted by a company long past its heyday to harass a mom and pop blog.
Shocking headlines poured out of newsrooms in June when six former eBay (EBAY) employees and contractors were arrested (and a seventh was arrested in July) for sending a bloody pig mask and cockroaches to a Boston-area couple that operated the tiny publication EcommerceBytes. The US Attorney for Massachusetts provided many lurid details of the scheme, including how eBay (EBAY) staff sent the couple threatening messages, fly larvae, live spiders, and posted the couple’s address to Craigslist to invite swingers to knock on their door “any time of day or night.”
But the New York Times Sunday published a far more in-depth report about the scandal, including new details about the lengths the company went to harass the bloggers, whom former CEO Devin Wenig hated.
‘Take her down’
Although EcommerceBytes is a tiny a trade publication aimed at eBay sellers, Wenig hate-read it frequently.
“We are going to crush this lady,” Wenig texted Steve Wymer, eBay’s former communications chief in April 2019, after one critical blog posted on EcommerceBytes’ website, the Times reported. Neither Wenig nor Wymer has been charged, and both have since left the company, taking expensive exit packages along with them.
Taking down the bloggers became something of an obsession for Wenig. “I couldn’t care less what she says,” the Times reported the CEO texted Wymer in May of last year, referring to Ina Steiner, who wrote for and operated EcommerceBytes. “Take her down.”
After Steiner wrote a story last August about a lawsuit eBay filed against Amazon, Wenig fired off a text to Wymer just over a half hour after the blog post went up, the Times said: “If you are ever going to take her down..now is the time.”
‘Johnny Be Good’
The head of eBay’s security division, James Baugh, liked to show his team movie clips for inspiration, the Times reported.
Following Wenig’s “now is the time” tweet, Wymer texted Baugh, “I want her DONE. She is a biased troll who needs to get BURNED DOWN.” So Baugh showed his staff a scene from a 1988 teen comedy “Johnny Be Good,” according to the Times. The scene shows a football coach receiving unwanted pizzas, a male stripper, an elephant and an exterminator at his door.
In case there was any doubt about whether Wymer approved of these kind of tactics, he texted Baugh: “Whatever. It. Takes,” according to the Times.
The plan, the Times reported, was to make the Steiners uncomfortable, and then eBay would play dumb and offer them assistance in the hope that they would change their tune and offer more positive coverage.
The big mistakes
In addition to reenacting “Johnny Be Good” – sending $70 of unwanted pizzas, the cockroaches, the Craigslist ad and everything else – eBay’s security team decided to stalk the bloggers, the Times reported.
They followed the Steiners’ car on August 15, 2019, until the eBay employees heard over the police scanner that they had been spotted. They followed the Steiners again in a different rental car three days later.
But they didn’t cover their tracks. One of the rental cars’ license plates was traced to an eBay employee, and some of the delivered pizzas were purchased with a gift card bought a few miles from eBay’s headquarters, according to the Times.
Trying to cover their tracks
Worried about getting caught, eBay’s security team started sending one another emails to make it appear that they were just discovering some of the harassment aimed at the bloggers, the Times reported. They also brainstormed cover stories, erased information from their phones and tried to stonewall eBay’s internal investigation team.
But they were quickly discovered. Wymer was fired. Wenig resigned, although he said it was because he was “not on the same page” as the company’s board. And the security team was placed on leave.