This week the New York Times published an in-depth story about eBay’s bizarre, poorly-coordinated attack on a blogger couple that involved deliveries of cockroaches and fly larvae, unsolicited pizza, and targeted shipments of pornography to the couple’s neighbors. If that sounds like the plot of a movie, that’s because one of the ringleaders of this absurd operation fancied himself something of a movie and TV aficionado; most of his ideas came from movies like Old School and Johnny Be Good. That man is James Baugh, the now-former head of eBay’s “Global Security and Resiliency” division, who was arrested and charged by the U.S. Department of Justice over the summer with conspiring to commit cyberstalking and tamper with witnesses. This story is truly a Steven Soderbergh movie waiting to happen.
The story begins from the perspective of another defendant in the case, Natalie Zea, an entry-level subordinate of Baugh’s who has plead guilty for her part in the attacks on the bloggers—Ina and David Steiner, a couple from the Boston suburb of Natick, who posted articles critical of eBay’s practices on their website, EcommerceBytes. Those posts drew the attention of eBay communications chief Steve Wymer and C.E.O. Devin Wenig, who instructed Baugh to “Take [Ina Steiner] down.” What’s particularly striking about the text messages between Wenig and Wymer, obtained by the Times, is the strong language used, like “I want to see ashes,” and “Whatever it takes”—as if they’re discussing a formidable corporate entity or rival. Instead, they’re talking about a mom-and-pop blogging duo who used their affinity for yard sales and collecting books to launch a fairly unassuming blog about internet commerce for like-minded folks.
Baugh, who comes off like Seth Rogen in Observe And Report, used scenes from movies and TV shows to train his division—he showed them a scene from Full Metal Jacket to teach them about keeping their lockers clean, and a scene from Billions to emphasize the concept of loyalty. Baugh and his team created fake Twitter accounts to harass the Steiners and “infiltrate” their operation, which they erroneously believed to include a third party, a Twitter user named “Fidomaster” who occasionally tweeted critical opinions about eBay. Baugh’s team tried to Catfish Fidomaster by pretending to be a former employee of eBay—a young woman—who claimed to have “extremely damaging videos of executives misbehaving” and wanted Fidomaster’s help to send them to the Steiners. The end result is a hilarious back-and-forth in which Fidomaster tells the young woman she should just contact Ina Steiner directly (her email is public) or get a lawyer.
What follows is a series of barely-competent attacks on the Steiners, with Baugh’s team sending the couple packages filled with spiders, fly larvae, and cockroaches, and a bloody pig mask; they had a $70 pizza order sent to the Steiner home. Later, after publishing a Craigslist post inviting anyone and everyone to daily swinger parties at the Steiner house, Zea says Baugh laughed while repeatedly watching the scene from Old School in which a man opens his front door to find a stranger who says, “I’m here for the gang bang.” Baugh’s operation was so poorly-planned that it was quickly and fairly easily foiled by local police not long into the attacks.
All told, six eBay employees were charged by the U.S. Department of Justice. The cynical punchline: Wenig and Wymer—who empowered Baugh to act on their grudge against the Steiners—have not been charged.