Last year, several former eBay employees plead guilty to harassing a Massachusetts couple by, amongst other things, having live spiders and human feces delivered to their home in Natick. You’d be forgiven for not knowing about the story — aside from a Boston Magazine feature in 2021, it didn’t gain widespread attention until recently, when 60 Minutes interviewed the couple, David and Ina Steiner.
To understand why eBay executives were charged with harassing the Steiners, let’s go back to the beginning. In 1999, the Steiners launched the online publication and newsletter EcommerceBytes dedicated to all things online and commercial - think eBay, Etsy, and Amazon. The publication was aimed at sellers, rather than customers, although executives at e-commerce companies like eBay were also known to be avid readers; the site has over 600,000 monthly readers, and David and Ina are the only staff members the publication has ever had.
20 years after creating the website, their lives were upended by the extended harassment campaign, which began when the couple waking up to the word “Fidomaster” spray painted on their fence; this was the username of a Twitter account that eBay CEO David Wenig was concerned about and had nothing to do with the Steiners. Then came the threatening Twitter messages from someone who claimed the couple’s reporting was harming eBay sellers. Then someone signed them up to newsletters like ‘Irritable Bowel Syndrome News’ and ‘Sin City Fetish Night newsletter’.
On a morning in August, the couple received an email letting them know that their ‘wet specimen’ was ready and asking if they wanted to accept delivery; after calling the company, David learned that the ‘wet specimen’ in question was a pig fetus embalmed in formaldehyde.
Following that, the Steiners called the police and did their best to explain the bizarre series of events. The officer noted that a package had just been delivered, so Ina braced herself and opened it, only to find something that “looked like flesh and hair” - a pig mask from the movie Saw.
During the next week, the disturbing deliveries ramped up: boxes of live spiders and cockroaches were sent to their house, and pornography was sent to their neighbors but addressed to David. Someone listed their Natick home online as the site of garage sales and sex parties. Perhaps the most ominous incident was when David was mailed a book filled with advice about surviving the loss of a spouse. “It was a death threat,” David told 60 Minutes. It was followed a few days later by a funeral wreath.
A police investigation connected an eBay employee to a rental car that was caught at the Steiner’s home by newly-installed security cameras, and eventually, in mid-2020, seven eBay employees and contractors were charged by the Justice Department with conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and conspiracy to tamper with witnesses.
All seven pleaded guilty to the charges, and three were sentenced to prison, with James Baugh, eBay’s former Senior Director of Safety and Security, receiving a 57-month sentence. While former CEO David Wenig was not charged in relation to the scandal, he stepped down as CEO in September 2019 and is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Steiners in July 2021.