Natick resident David Steiner was puttering in his garage on a sunny Sunday morning when a neighbor walking a dog called out to him: “Hey, your fence has been tagged.”
Steiner, who with his wife, Ina, publishes a news website about the e-commerce industry from their home, thought his neighbor must be joking — who would be graffitiing his new white vinyl fence on their quiet, tree-lined street?
It was June of 2019, and he had no clue that the vandalism was just the start of a bizarre harassment campaign directed by senior executives at one of the country’s leading Internet companies, eBay. Ultimately, the events would shatter the Steiners’ peaceful suburban life, result in criminal charges against six eBay employees and a contractor, five of whom have pleaded guilty, and contribute to the departure of eBay’s chief executive.
The abuse would culminate in the couple fearing for their lives as they were stalked in their own neighborhood by unknown perpetrators in a slow-moving black van.
But that Sunday, Steiner was simply surprised and dismayed to see the word “Fidomaster” spray-painted across his fence. He tried to clean up the mess before Ina, who was out paddle boarding, returned home but he failed. Ina recognized that the name matched an anonymous commenter on their newsletter, one who was particularly critical of eBay.
“This was very unnerving,” Ina recalled in an interview with the Globe this week. “It didn’t make any sense.”
Had the person who was Fidomaster painted their name on the fence? Or was someone accusing the Steiners of being Fidomaster? Or did the term have some other meaning? “I Googled right away to see if it was something kids might be saying,” Ina said.
In their first interview with the news media, the couple spoke to the Globe for several hours in the offices of attorney Rosemary Scapicchio, who is representing them in a civil lawsuit against eBay. They provided additional harrowing details of their experience beyond those disclosed in court documents, which include copies of e-mails and text messages of eBay employees that federal prosecutors say show how they conspired to terrorize the Steiners.
The couple met in the mid-1980s in Western Massachusetts at what was then called North Adams State College and is now called the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The two young students met at a party for a bandmate of David’s who was going away and immediately felt a connection and began dating. They married in 1988.
Around 1999, when eBay was still a young company and the World Wide Web was not the finely tuned commercial marketplace it is today, David decided to sell some of his video gear on the auction site. The couple also began haunting garage sales and yard sales to find collectible items they could sell online to make money. “We’d get up early, go through the classified ads, get your Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, and hit as many sales as we could,” Ina said.
They quickly realized that a growing throng of like-minded sellers was struggling to figure out how best to auction their items. The Steiners initially created a paper newsletter with tips and tricks to help other sellers, but realized after one issue that an online publication made more sense, even in 1999. Thus was born AuctionBytes, later changed to EcommerceBytes, and running the advertising-based publication is the couple’s full-time occupation.
For years, the publication thrived. Particularly while eBay was run by Meg Whitman, small sellers flourished and EcommerceBytes offered a wide variety of useful advice. One time, David explained to readers how he’d shipped a large item by Greyhound bus instead of a typical package delivery service, saving hundreds of dollars.
After Whitman left in 2007 and was replaced by former Bain & Co. consultant John Donahoe, eBay began to cater to larger sellers and established retailers, a trend that continued when Devin Wenig was promoted to CEO in 2015. The couple had pivoted their newsletter from how-to tips to reporting more on the changing strategy and new policies of the company. Their take on the new eBay was often, though hardly exclusively, critical.
And criticism didn’t go down well at the firm. Prosecutors said the harassment campaign, starting with the fence spray-painting incident, was directed by James Baugh, who headed eBay’s Global Security and Resiliency unit. Along with other participants in the scheme, Baugh was charged last year with conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and conspiracy to commit witness tampering. He is awaiting trial.
Prosecutors said the 2019 campaign was sparked by complaints about articles in EcommerceBytes from eBay chief executive Wenig to his senior vice president and communications director, Steve Wymer. Wymer in turn complained to Baugh, who directed the team of eBay employees who worked for him to move against the Steiners, according to the federal criminal complaints.
The articles that drew the eBay executives’ ire included reports about the CEO’s salary and his comments on protecting e-sellers against fraud. Prosecutors revealed angry text messages about an April 10, 2019, article titled “eBay CEO Devin Wenig Earns 152 Times That of Employees,” as well as “eBay CEO Says Sellers Can Expect Greater Protections,” from May 31, 2019. Such articles generated reader comments that were highly critical of the company’s leadership and its treatment of smaller sellers, who felt left behind in favor of larger retailers.
From the Steiners’ point of view, not much happened for a few weeks after the graffiti. But on Aug. 8, 2019, they found their inboxes filling up with dozens of e-mail newsletters they hadn’t signed up for, ranging from Heather’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome News and The Satanic Temple to more disturbing fare featuring pornography and bondage. At the same time, a new Twitter account started bombarding Ina Steiner with expletive-laden taunts, she said.
She had occasionally had to deal with inappropriate comments on the website, she said. “If you’ve been on the Internet for a while, you learn that you don’t feed the trolls, don’t respond, don’t encourage them.”
Two days later, the phone rang. It was a taxidermy and animal parts shop in Arizona calling to ask about a purported order for the Steiners of a fetal pig. The Steiners’ delivery address didn’t match the billing address on the credit card used on the order, so the shop called to double check the order. Shaken, the Steiners canceled the order.
“I thought, here we go, from online to the real world,” Ina said. “It was really scary.”
The couple decided to call the Natick police, and an officer arrived at their house to take a report, they said. As the officer was leaving the house, he noticed a package by the front door. While David and the officer continued talking, Ina opened the package in the kitchen. Seeing bits of hair and skin, she screamed. Inside was a mask of a bloody pig face, like the one worn by a crazed killer in the “Saw” horror movie series. The officer added the details to his report.
The Twitter abuse continued to escalate and even more bizarre deliveries arrived, the couple said. One day it was a book for David called “Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss of a Spouse.” Ina said she Googled the return address of another package, and when she discovered the sender was called Carolina Biological Supply Co., she feared they might need to call a hazmat team. A call to the company revealed the package was filled with live spiders and fly larvae; they turned it over to the police.
A few days later, a florist arrived with a sympathy wreath for David. The driver told the Steiners he had come from Central Square in Cambridge and was instructed to leave the $255 wreath by their back door without ringing the bell. Ina snapped a picture, more evidence for the police, and debriefed the delivery man.
“All of these small retailers, they were being weaponized to be used against us,” David said.
On Aug. 15, the campaign took a darker turn. Unbeknownst to the Steiners, a group of Baugh’s employees had flown to Boston, rented two vehicles, and checked into the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, according to federal documents. They initially planned to plant a tracking device on the Steiners’ car. Luckily, the Toyota Rav4 was locked in the garage and the eBay team retreated to the hotel, the documents allege.
But the next day the team returned. David Steiner was up on a ladder installing one of several new security cameras he’d purchased, while Ina handed him tools out of a second-floor window. Suddenly, Ina saw a dark-colored Dodge Caravan driving up their street. “Black van, New York plates,” she told David as the vehicle drove past.
“We felt in danger, we felt like targets,” Ina said.
The van took another pass by the house, as captured by one of the couple’s security cameras. Then, later in the day, David noticed the same van pull out to follow him while he was in his car with a friend.
“I can still feel how every hair on the back of my neck stood up,” David said, as the van followed him for several blocks.
The Steiners called the police again, and this time three cruisers rushed to their house. But they hadn’t been able to take down the entire license plate number of the van, and the police weren’t able to track down the vehicle. As the police milled about, “I just sat on my steps, sweating, feeling my heart pounding,” David said.
“Everything just faded away, it was surreal,” added Ina. “I was terrified.”
Thinking they might be physically attacked, the couple decided to sleep in different rooms. Ina put a laundry cart by her back door with a few baking sheets balanced on top. “We didn’t have a full alarm system,” she said. “This could at least warn us if someone broke in.”
That night, David was awake at about 4:30 a.m., too stressed to sleep. He heard a car slowly driving up the street. A black sedan pulled up in front of their house. David yelled for Ina to call 911 as a man got out of the car and took what looked like a large leather case out of the back seat. David began screaming at the man that he’d called the police.
“We thought he had a gun,” Ina recalled.
Instead, the eBay team had called for a prank pizza delivery at the Steiners’ house, according to federal prosecutors. The delivery man put the pizza boxes on the ground and left, the couple said. The police arrived, but the Steiners couldn’t get back to sleep.
The couple said they felt besieged and trapped in their own home. “You couldn’t shut the feeling of terror off, there’s just no off switch,” David said.
On Aug. 18, David became determined to break out and go to the grocery store. Again, a vehicle, a silver SUV, started following him. He called Ina. “I’m going to take them downtown,” he told her, planning to drive to the Natick Police Department.
The SUV followed at a distance. He pulled over and parked across the street from the police station. As the SUV slowly drove past, he propped Ina’s iPhone up on the steering wheel and photographed the stalkers. “I’m determined to take a picture this time, I just kept hitting the button,” he said.
With a full license plate number in hand from David’s pictures, the Natick police quickly started to unravel the conspiracy. The vehicle tracked back to an eBay contractor who was staying at the Ritz.
eBay’s team knew it was in trouble, according to their own messages obtained later by federal prosecutors. But on Aug. 21, even as a Natick police detective traveled to the Ritz to find the van renter, the stream of threatening tweets against the Steiners continued.
The Steiners cooperated with the investigation, which soon included FBI agents and federal prosecutors. For months, the couple weren’t sure what had really happened or who was behind the abuse, which stopped after a final burst of tweets on Sept. 6, 2019.
“It was a really long winter with the weight of all of this hanging over us,” David said. The couple have remained vigilant to outside threats. Ina no longer goes for long walks by herself and David still has trouble sleeping. The couple maintain a network of security cameras, including one in their car.
In June 2020, federal prosecutors announced criminal charges against six former eBay employees and a contractor. The company apologized to the Steiners, and in a lengthy statement said it had conducted its own investigation that had resulted in terminating all of the employees charged by the government plus communications chief Wymer, who has not been charged.
The investigation also found that former CEO Wenig had made “inappropriate communications” but did not have advance knowledge of the harassment and stalking. Wenig, who was not charged, was allowed to resign in September 2019 with a compensation package worth $57 million; the Steiner scandal was a “consideration” in his departure, the company has said.
Wenig’s lawyers, Martin G. Weinberg and Abbe D. Lowell, said in a statement to the Globe: “An independent investigation confirmed that Devin Wenig had nothing to do with and no knowledge of any of the activities alleged in Mr & Mrs Steiner’s Complaint. Although he is an inviting target as the former CEO, he did not know of, approve, or authorize the conduct and regrets what the Steiners experienced.”
Reading the criminal complaint in June 2020, the Steiners got a view for the first time of what had been going on inside eBay during their torment. “The vitriol towards us, where did it come from?” David asked.
“We didn’t even know these people,” Ina added. “We were helping their customers sell more. That should be a good thing.”
After the Steiners filed their civil lawsuit on July 21, eBay issued a new statement, again apologizing to the couple and saying the company would “do what is fair and appropriate to try to address what the Steiners went through.”
On July 28, one of the defendants in the criminal case, Philip Cooke, the former senior manager of Security Operations for eBay’s Global Security Team, was sentenced to 18 months in prison. It was the first sentencing of anyone involved in the case.
“Sometimes in the past two years, I haven’t been able to recognize myself,” David told the Globe on the day after Cooke was sentenced. “But I woke up feeling great today.”
The civil lawsuit is an attempt to get the fuller story and gain some compensation for the mental toll exacted by the company’s employees, the couple said. They also want to put other corporations on notice.
“The reason we’re suing is we don’t want it to happen to anybody else,” Ina said. “It has to be known what was done to us.”
Aaron Pressman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.