In one quadrant of cyberspace—the place where you can buy and sell electric mosquito bats, face masks, hiking boots, vintage butter dishes, Star Wars pajamas and a Mr. Peanut vending machine—in that realm of eternal optimism where treasures are found and good deals abound, there are new tremors of anxiety.
Among the 25 million independent eBay sellers, especially the 7 million in the U.S., news of the June 15 arrest of six former eBay employees on bizarre and disturbing cyberstalking charges, including sending live spiders and cockroaches and pornography to a critic, threatens to tarnish the 25-year-old iconic brand.
The San Jose corporate headquarters of eBay, one of Silicon Valley’s biggest employers with 14,000 workers, has been ominously silent except for one distancing statement the day the indictments were announced by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts.
No word from CEO Jamie Iannone (in his sixth week on the job). No emails to sellers or customers. Nothing for the 34,000 members of Stay at Home Moms Selling on eBay, the 357 members of Bay Area eBay sellers or the 125 million active buyers in the U.S.
But there is plenty of social media chatter among eBay sellers.
The only company statement to sellers—the heart of the eBay business model—came in the form of an apology by a senior vice president on an “Announcements” page for eBay sellers in the company website, which he reposted to his personal Facebook page and to a private eBay Sellers Facebook group that has 47,000 followers. The VP, Jordan Sweetnam, added a follow-up post two days later.
“This is the first time—at the request of law enforcement—that anyone from the company is allowed to speak about the events,” wrote Jordan Sweetnam, senior vice president and general manager, North America. “EBay will never tolerate this kind of behavior and has apologized to those who were affected.”
“I want to be able to tell you that this news won’t be a distraction, but that wouldn’t be true,” Sweetnam wrote. “Like many of my colleagues who try their very best to make eBay a great company, I am angry and frustrated.”
“This is the first time in 20 years I have been embarrassed to be an eBay seller,” said one popular online seller on his YouTube channel with nearly 12,000 subscribers. He also is host of a private Facebook group for online sellers that has 57,000 followers.
On his YouTube channel, Jason T. Smith of Las Vegas, said, “This is the first time in my eBay career that I won’t be telling anyone I am an eBay seller, as I am embarrassed and saddened by the news this week.”
“it appears that this disgusting behavior went all the way to the top at eBay. A lot of Youtube content creators and bloggers have talked about this, but I have a slightly different angle as I have direct involvement with two of the players in this.”
In addition to the impact on the thousands of eBay employees and sellers in Silicon Valley, the case also has a potential impact on politics in the city of Santa Clara, where one of the suspects was a police captain.
The suspect, retired Santa Clara police Capt. Brian Gilbert, was senior manager of special operations for eBay’s Global Security Team. He is the object of an independent third-party investigation by Santa Clara “to ensure that his actions and behavior while an employee were lawful and consistent with the expectations we have for all our employees,” the city announced June 17. “While we have no reports that indicate similar alleged behavior during his employment with the city, our investigation is being done to ensure that we maintain public’s trust.”
Gilbert was a close political ally of Police Chief Pat Nikolai, who’s up for reelection in November. Nikolai quickly distanced himself from his old friend.
“I am shocked and saddened by what I’ve read about the federal indictment,” he said. “Integrity is one of our core principles and I want to ensure the public that we have systems in place to thwart this type of behavior.”
The federal indictment alleged that Gilbert was part of an elite security team that waged an “aggressive cyberstalking campaign” in August 2019 against a husband-and-wife team that runs EcommerceBytes, a blog that reports business news for online merchants who sell on eBay, Amazon, Etsy and other platforms.
The site and some of its readers who posted comments were often critical of eBay and former CEO Devin Wenig, who left the company less than a month after it was notified of the actions of the security squad.
Neither the company nor any current eBay employee was indicted.
In his only comments about the incident, Wenig on June 18 sent online news site Vox a statement that his texts “have been wildly misinterpreted and taken completely out of context in some media reports.”
“In order to preserve the integrity of the government’s investigation, eBay did not previously communicate about this matter,” the company said in a June 15 statement to reporters. “In light of today’s public announcement by the government, eBay is now addressing this matter publicly. The online marketplace giant was notified by authorities in August last year of suspicious actions by its security personnel toward a blogger, who writes about the company, and her husband.”
Corporate officials say they “immediately launched a comprehensive investigation,” with the assistance of outside legal counsel, that resulted in the firing of the six employees, including the company’s former communications chief, in September. The company said it cooperated fully with law enforcement, that it “does not tolerate this kind of behavior.”
In a press release, eBay said it “apologizes to the affected individuals and is sorry that they were subjected to this.”
“[We] hold [our] employees to high standards of conduct and ethics,“ it added, “and will continue to take appropriate action to ensure these standards are followed.”
The company noted that the internal investigation also examined what role, if any, Wenig, its CEO at the time of the incident, may have played.
“The internal investigation found that, while Mr. Wenig’s communications were inappropriate, there was no evidence that he knew in advance about or authorized the actions that were later directed toward the blogger and her husband,” eBay officials said. “However, as the company previously announced, there were a number of considerations leading to his departure from the company.”
The six suspects are alleged to have sent the blog-publishing couple anonymous threatening messages, disturbing deliveries—including a box of live cockroaches, a funeral wreath and a bloody pig mask, to name some—and to have conducted covert surveillance of the victims.
James Baugh, 45, of San Jose, eBay’s former senior director of safety and security, was charged with conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and tampering with witnesses. David Harville, 48, of New York City, eBay’s former director of global resiliency, was arrested on the same charges. As were the following defendants: Stephanie Popp, 32, of San Jose, eBay’s former senior manager of global intelligence; Stephanie Stockwell, 26, of Redwood City, the former manager of eBay’s Global Intelligence Center; and former eBay contractor Veronica Zea, 26, of San Jose.