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The Shocking Reason eBay Sent a Box of Live Cockroaches to Two Bloggers' Home

Courtesy of SXSW
Courtesy of SXSW

In August 2019, a pig fetus showed up on their doorstep. Then a veiled threat in the form of a book titled Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss of a Spouse, followed by unsolicited pornography. Then a box of live cockroaches. Late-night pizzas they never ordered. Garage-sale advertisements they never placed. A funeral wreath.

Ina and David Steiner had no idea who was sending these unsettling deliveries, nor the sinister Twitter messages that promised more to come. Making matters scarier, a black van started passing by their home near Boston, where the Steiners have run a blog guiding eBay sellers and covering the e-commerce giant’s practices since 1999. After contacting the police, who eventually took the case to the FBI, the Steiners discovered the packages were a coordinated intimidation tactic—one that originated within eBay itself.

The Steiner saga is the subject of the riveting new documentary Whatever It Takes, which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival on Saturday. The Steiners were also the focus of a recent 60 Minutes segment, but the film goes into far more detail about the corporate scheme that sought to scare the Steiners into terminating their blog after a ruthless hedge fund sent fear through eBay’s ranks. The how of it all is shocking, a sordid tale involving C-suite egos, junior employees made to do the dirty work, and two middle-aged journalists with a niche website left fearing for their lives.

The trivia that hooked director Jenny Carchman, who learned about eBay’s terror plot in a New York Times story published in 2020, involved James Baugh, a former CIA agent enlisted to run an intelligence operation at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters. Baugh managed his team like a military outfit, hiring young women to monitor potential security threats from individual internet users and al Qaeda alike. To exemplify his principles, Baugh regularly summoned underlings to a “war room"”and played clips from Zero Dark Thirty, Training Day, Full Metal Jacket, American Gangster, and other movies featuring hawkish authority figures. Even a Meet the Fockers scene where Robert De Niro’s retired CIA operative explains his tight-knit “circle of trust” was deemed a useful tutorial.

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Carchman saw Baugh’s persona as “camp.” Here was a macho enforcer projecting a mode of stewardship that makes more sense at an army base than it does a site where people auction Elvis Presley’s dental X-rays. “They saw themselves as crusaders of this territory,” Carchman tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, referring to Baugh and other top executives, “when actually the territory is a tech company that’s been around for years and is known to be quirky. Even the colors [in the logo] are like a circus. It’s eBay, not black ops.”

Within the online seller community, the Steiners were providing a valuable service. Their writing brought more transparency to eBay’s customs, which the company’s earlier leadership never seemed to mind. To the broader world, the Steiners were nobodies. We’re not talking about high-profile Wall Street Journal reporters here. But eBay’s marketplace value had narrowed by the late 2010s, and CEO Devin Wenig grew resentful after Ina Steiner ran a story revealing he earned 152 times more than the average eBay staff member. Not long after that, the harassment started.

Initially, the Steiners were reluctant to participate in Whatever It Takes, fearing further retribution from the multibillion-dollar corporation that had targeted them. Carchman and producer Allyson Luchak approached the couple in 2020. Two years would pass before Baugh and David Harville, eBay’s former director of global resiliency, were sentenced to prison for orchestrating the torment. (Wenig, who had encouraged his colleagues via text message to “take [Ina Steiner] down,” was never charged.) The fact that Luchak already knew the Steiners’ attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, from a previous documentary helped their pitch. Carchman says the pair agreed to do the film after watching The Fourth Estate, the Showtime series she co-directed about Times reporters who covered Donald Trump’s presidency.

If Carchman wanted a comprehensive documentary, she needed to get someone inside eBay to talk. She and Luchak say they attended the sentencing hearings for all six of the employees who pleaded guilty in 2020. (A seventh employee has not yet been sentenced.) At those hearings, they invited each defendant to tell his or her side of the story. “They were very scared, or they wanted to move on with their lives and didn’t want to let this define them out in the world,” Carchman says.

Headshot of Jenny Carchman

Jenny Carchman

Courtesy of SXSW

But one person, Veronica Zea, agreed. Zea is a California native who answered a classified ad after college and accepted contract work as an eBay intelligence analyst. Thinking compliance was essential to professional success, Zea followed Baugh’s cyberbullying instructions and later rented the car used to stalk the Steiners. According to Carchman, Zea decided she might as well explain what it was like to do her bosses’ bidding at a young, impressionable age. After all, her offenses are a mere Google search away. She comes across in the film as incredibly remorseful. “If Veronica hadn’t participated, I don’t know that there would be a movie,” Carchman says.

Plus, these things always start at the top, whether or not Wenig actually meant for Baugh to ship roaches to the home of two Massachuesetts bloggers. For Carchman and Luchak, this is the account of an institution attacking journalists at a time when the media industry is already facing existential struggles because of decisions made within huge corporations.

“I really like stories that capture you with a really sensational, entertaining, or mind-boggling hook but speak to something larger,” Luchak says. “In this story, you have something going unbelievably wrong. The leader they put in charge at eBay had been in the CIA and worked for Bill Gates—all kinds of things that were very above board. What happened in this environment that pushed him in a different direction? What I think you see in the film was that there’s a larger force at play: protecting a CEO—and greed and money and losing sight of the message about what the whole business was in the first place.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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