EBay user admits to threatening executives

A Romanian native who became disgruntled with eBay Inc.'s business practices pleaded guilty Tuesday to threatening senior executives, including the billionaires who founded and manage one of the world's largest e-commerce companies.

Florin Horicianu, 37, a naturalized U.S. citizen who tried to recruit thousands of Romanians to become eBay buyers and sellers, sobbed and wiped his eyes as U.S. District Judge James Ware told him that he faced up to five years in prison and at least $250,000 in fines.

Horicianu, who will be sentenced in September, sent executives numerous e-mails in 2003 and 2004 in which he contemplated suicide and made other threatening remarks because of a business dispute with eBay. Among the executives who received his e-mails were Silicon Valley e-commerce pioneer and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and ebay Chief Executive Meg Whitman.

"I will haunt and hurt you and your family," said one e-mail.

EBay representatives declined to comment on the case.

But in documents filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court, the company portrayed Horicianu as a mentally disturbed man who created phony accounts from fake sellers throughout Romania to inflate his recruitment ranks.

According to court files, Horicianu demanded eBay pay him $800,000 and sent an e-mail to one eBay executive demanding payment or else he would continue "hunting you and your family."

Although he admitted after his court appearance Tuesday that his e-mails to executives were a "mistake," Horicianu said eBay's security investigators misinterpreted their meaning. Also, he said, the company erred when it informed him in a computer-generated e-mail response that he could no longer recruit members.

As part of his plea, Horicianu waived any right to appeal.

Horicianu, a computer programmer and mechanical engineer who has lived in New York City for 10 years, said he spent thousands of dollars to travel to Romania, where he set up classes for local consumers and taught them how to surf the Internet, pay electronically and bid for items on the popular online auction site.

He said eBay, which pays members up to $45 per new recruit as part of its "Affiliate Program," owed him at least $7,200 for his recruitment efforts. But the company refused to pay, he said, after customer service representatives became suspicious about the high volume of new accounts being opened from obscure Internet cafes throughout Romania's cities and countryside.

For years, eBay executives have acknowledged that a disproportionate percentage of fraudulent transactions are committed from sellers and buyers in eastern Europe, particularly Romania. EBay's fraud detection software alerts the company's security personnel to all suspicious accounts -- including, for instance, a new seller in Romania peddling expensive electronics such as computers and plasma televisions.

But Horicianu said eBay's clampdown on his entrepreneurial efforts was discriminatory -- and bad for business. Relatively few consumers own personal computers in Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries, so locals often have to share computers or log into e-commerce sites from public desktops at Internet cafes.

"They dismissed my work based on an unfair explanation -- then they just sent a cut-and-paste response," Horicianu said after his court appearance. "They didn't care about my efforts and that I spent a lot of money. I believed I could trust eBay and Meg Whitman, but I couldn't."

By RACHEL KONRAD
AP Business Writer