Investigation into eBay continues after stalking scandal | 60 Minutes

Investigation into eBay continues after stalking scandal | 60 Minutes

Statements provided by eBay and former CEO Devin Wenig are available here.

The online auction site eBay launched the e-commerce revolution when it was founded more than 20 years ago. Over the decades, it’s drawn in 134 million users from mom-and-pop collectors on the hunt for bargains to small business owners.

In 2022, users sold almost $74 billion worth of goods through eBay. But last winter, buried in an otherwise dull annual financial disclosure—a note on page 105 hinted at a scandal inside the Silicon Valley giant. 

It refers to an inquiry from the U.S. Attorney about the stalking and harassment of the editor and publisher of an online newsletter at the hands of eBay employees.

In March, we introduced you to the couple that was the target of that stalking. They loved eBay so much they started a publication to help people who sell stuff on the auction site, and then, found themselves the focus of a terror campaign.

We met Ina and David Steiner in Natick, Massachusetts, a quaint Boston suburb where the couple had enjoyed a quiet life until the summer of 2019.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You called it psychological warfare.

Ina Steiner: It– it– it felt like corporate terrorism, because we were terrorized. And it was very calculated. It was very vicious.

David Steiner: One of the things that we also learned was what sadistic pleasure these people took in terrorizing us

eBay coverage on EcommerceBytes

60 Minutes

The Steiners have been married for more than 30 years and worked together, from their home, for more than 20. They publish a news website called  EcommerceBytes. David handles the business side of things and Ina does the reporting. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: What do you cover? Who’s the audience?

Ina Steiner: We cover industry news. So what I do is I– I follow what’s happening and how it impacts sellers. 

Ina Steiner: People would write to us. And they would say, ‘Hey. I’m having a problem with Amazon. Or I’m having a problem with eBay.’

David Steiner And we said, ‘Well, let’s put up a section where– where we can just be a conduit.’ That’s all we ever wanted to be– a conduit for sellers to tell their problems, tell their issues– share information.

Ina Steiner: And give them a voice.

David Steiner: And give them a voice.

Most of their 600,000 readers are sellers on eBay, Amazon and Etsy, but the Steiners say e-commerce executives also read Ina’s articles closely.

Ina Steiner: Industry observers would contact us with questions, as there were certain things going on. And Wall Street was very interested, because these were public companies. And they needed to know.

Sharyn Alfonsi:  Tell me what happened when you opened your email on the morning of August 8th.

Ina Steiner: Well, we were getting bombarded– with– with sign-ups to crazy newsletters.

David and Ina Steiner

60 Minutes

Newsletters the Steiners never signed up for…Sin City Fetish Night, the Satanic Temple, The Communist Party and dozens of others.

Ina Steiner: Then somebody started harassing us on Twitter, through direct messages.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What were you seeing on Twitter?

David Steiner: Threats.

Ina Steiner: It– it was basically, ‘Shut up, or else.’ And it was– it was as blatant as that. 

But much more threatening than that and so vulgar we can’t show you many of the messages. Three days later, the Steiners got a strange call.

Ina Steiner: 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. 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?’

Sharyn Alfonsi: Is that when you called the police?

David Steiner: Every step along the way– 

Ina Steiner: But that was the first time

David Steiner: –we, we, we, would report it–And when the police drove up to the front door, we had to put on, you know, a rational face. We couldn’t show how terrified we were.

Ina Steiner:  After the police officer took the report, he– he stepped outside and said, “There’s a package here.” So, he waited.  And when I opened up the package, it looked like– it looked like flesh and hair. and– I kind of yelled, or shrieked, 

It was a pig mask from the horror movie “Saw.” The plot involves a psychopath who tortures his victims, the last thing they see is the mask.

Sharyn Alfonsi: I imagine as this is happening, you’re not only thinking, “Who is this person?” But, “What are they gonna do next?”

Ina Steiner: Oh. That was the– that was the question. What– what are they gonna do next? 

Over the next week someone sent boxes of live cockroaches and spiders to the Steiners.  Pornography was sent to their neighbors but addressed to David. On social media, the Steiners’ home was listed as the site of yard sales and sex parties.  

And then this book about surviving the loss of a spouse, addressed to David, arrived at the Steiners’ doorstep.

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

Ina Steiner: And–

Sharyn Alfonsi: You were afraid for her life.

David Steiner: I– I was terrified I was gonna lose her.

Police, at first, thought it might be a small-town prank. David installed more security cameras at their home. But for three weeks the threats and packages kept coming. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: As this is going on, what’s it like to be inside your house?

Ina Steiner: When it would get dark out at night, that’s when I would really– be terrified.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You guys started sleeping in separate rooms at one point?

David Steiner: What we– what we wanted to do was to make sure that if someone did break in, that at least one of us could either call the police, or escape.

The Steiners were afraid inside their house and afraid to leave it after David noticed a van and later a  car following him.  He was terrified… but managed to get a photo of the license plate.  That broke open the case.

Det. John Haswell: I’m a guy who likes to dig up things. I sometimes don’t get the end result, and that’s why I rely on s– smart guys like this. 

Natick Detective John Haswell was working the case with Sergeant Jason Sutherland. He ran the license plate of the car that had been following David.

Natick Detective John Haswell and Sergeant Jason Sutherland

60 Minutes

Sgt. Jason Sutherland: And it came back to a rental agency. And I contacted the rental agency, and got the name of the renter: Veronica Zea. I didn’t know anything about the Steiners at this point, other than what was going on with them. So I– this was the first time that I called them.

Sgt. Jason Sutherland:  I said– ‘Are you familiar with the name?’ They weren’t. And while I was saying that, I think– Mrs. Steiner did the– her own little search and said, ‘Oh, my God– she works for eBay.’

Ina Steiner:  I—I—I don’t know—I can’t describe how flabbergasted we were  eBay? I mean, what was an eBay employee doing in a rental van, following David? Did she– 

David Steiner: It blew our minds.

Ina Steiner: –send all these–things? Was it eBay that did this to us? I mean, it was inconceivable.

Sgt. Sutherland tracked Veronica Zea’s rental car to the Boston Ritz Carlton, and called her from the lobby.

Sgt. Jason Sutherland: I fully expected her to come down and say– hand me a business card and say, ‘I’m– I’m from eBay, and– we’re doing an investigation, and yeah, I drove by the house.’ We called up to the room, and she said– she’d be down after she had a conference call. She never showed up. 

Zea left town without talking to police. But Detective Haswell had been chasing down another lead. He  learned the funeral wreath sent to the Steiners was bought with a gift card from a grocery store in Silicon Valley not far from eBay headquarters.

Det. John Haswell: Yeah. They were eight– less than eight miles away. And he was able to get photographs of– them purchasin’ the– the gift cards, and it was Veronica Zea again.

The FBI took over.  Ten months later, the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts Andrew Lelling announced the indictments of six employees and contractors from eBay.

Andrew Lelling (at press conference): The complaint alleges that the victims were targeted because eBay executives were unhappy with the coverage of eBay on the couple’s website.

David Steiner:  It didn’t take us an hour to realize the ramifications of a public company trying to destroy a journalist, they were attacking the First Amendment, freedom of the press. They wanted to destroy Ina and our publication.

Former federal prosecutor Andrew Lelling says the plan to target the Steiners was hatched at eBay. 

Former prosecutor Andrew Lelling

60 Minutes

Andrew Lelling: What was unique about this case is that you had relatively senior management at a Fortune 500 company– who thought it was a good idea to launch what can only be described as a campaign of terror targeting a middle-aged couple in Natick. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: Why?

Andrew Lelling: Well– the why is actually harder than it seems. 

Investigators learned in April of 2019,  eBay’s then CEO Devin Wenig shared a link to this post Ina had written about his annual pay. EBay’s Chief Communications Officer,  Steve Wymer,  wrote back “we are going to crush this lady” about a month later, Wenig, the CEO of eBay  texted: “take her down.”  Prosecutors say Steve Wymer later texted eBay security director  Jim Baugh “I want to see ashes. as long as it takes. whatever it takes.”

Just a few days later, investigators say Baugh set up a meeting with his security staff at eBay’s California headquarters, posted a map of Natick on the wall, and then dispatched a team to Boston.

Seven people who worked for eBay’s Safety and Security Unit, including two former cops, and a former nanny all pled guilty to stalking or cyberstalking charges.  

Senior security director Jim Baugh was sentenced to five years in prison. Veronica Zea was sentenced to a year of home confinement and probation. 

But to date eBay has not been charged with any crimes. The company said in a statement to 60 Minutes the conduct of the former employees was wrong and it has cooperated fully with the government investigation.

Sharyn Alfonsi: The plan was hatched in eBay’s headquarters, in a conference room. It was paid for, ultimately, by eBay. Don’t they bear any responsibility for this?

Andrew Lelling: They may. But– cases are common where an employee inside a company uses company resources to do wrong. In every one of those cases it’s not necessarily true that the company itself is responsible.  

And Lelling says there was not enough evidence to file criminal charges against eBay’s top executives, Devin Wenig or Steve Wymer. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: But when he says or texts, “I wanna see ashes, whatever it takes,” 

Andrew Lelling: People say things like that all the time. Especially senior people in companies. It’s not the same as, ‘I am knowingly joining a criminal conspiracy to cyberstalk a couple in Natick.’ People use loose talk like that all the time.  

David Steiner:  (SIGH) Let me ask you somethin’. If you have a dog that is trained to attack and then you give them the command, ‘Take her down,’  aren’t you as responsible for the damage that happens?

Jillise McDonough: It’s obvious that it started from the top.  

Rosemary Scapicchio and Jillise McDonough

60 Minutes

Jillise McDonough and Rosemary Scapicchio are representing the Steiners in a civil case against eBay, and its former executives

Rosemary Scapicchio:  If you’re in the C-suite, it’s your job to know what your employees are doing. How did you sit back and say you didn’t know, especially when good things were happening and– and– and, you know, the share prices were increasing? They were all w– you know, pattin’ themselves on the back. They– ‘We did that. We did that. We had’– but then when something like this happens, they turn around and say, ‘We had no idea. We had no idea this was happening.’

Sharyn Alfonsi: We’ve seen these text messages from Wenig and from Wymer. I was under the impression they turned over all their text messages. That didn’t happen?

Rosemary Scapicchio: No. Wymer deleted his text messages. There was– a notice that went out to everyone to say, “There’s this criminal investigation, preserve the evidence.” Wymer immediately deletes everything. That’s obstruction of justice. If I did that I’d be sitting in a jail cell somewhere right now.

The current U.S. Attorney has said the investigation into eBay is ongoing.

Steve Wymer was fired for cause by eBay and now runs the Boys and Girls Clubs of Silicon Valley. He has said his texts were mischaracterized and that he learned of the employees’ conduct only after the fact. The former CEO Devin Wenig, said in a statement to 60 Minutes that he was appalled at what happened and had he been aware of it at the time he would have stopped it. 

Wenig resigned from eBay in September of 2019 with a $57 million exit package.  

Produced by Michael Rey. Associate producer, Tadd J. Lascari. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Robert Zimet.