A military police team is trawling internet auction sites to catch thieves trying to sell stolen defence equipment online. The widespread theft of uniform, weapons and tools is costing at least £50,000 a month, and much of it ends up on sites such as eBay.
Last year, Operation Embroil, the military police team monitoring sites such as eBay, discovered 107 cases where military kit was being sold illegally online. According to latest figures, 17 additional cases have arisen since the start of the year.
Whitehall sources say ministers fear some of the most dangerous equipment could fall into the hands of organised criminal gangs and terrorists. Military items available to buy on eBay this weekend include gas masks, antenna kits, rucksacks, body armour, flight helmets and vests, night vision goggles and global positioning equipment. One problem for investigators is identifying which items are commercially available, and which could only have come from Ministry of Defence supplies.
Last year, the MoD referred 361 reported thefts to police. Ministers have admitted that "in many cases a suspected perpetrator is not identified or there is insufficient evidence to pursue a prosecution". A list of almost 600 items stolen between March 2011 and January 2012 included catalytic converters worth £32,000, tools worth £35,000, radio equipment costing £15,000, night vision goggles worth up to £4,000, generators worth more than £7,000 and weapons sights valued at more than £8,000. Other items included laptops, radios, ceremonial swords helmets, sheds shoes, an X-Box 360 and a dinghy.
Luciana Berger, the Labour MP who obtained the details of the thefts, said: "I couldn't believe the amount of stuff that could be stolen across MoD sites. Put together it could be used to cause some serious damage... when money needs to be put on the frontline, the MoD needs to do more to stop stuff going missing in the first pace, before it ends up on eBay."
Since 2008, Operation Embroil has arrested 70 people, of whom 15 were successfully prosecuted, 17 cautioned and a number referred for Service disciplinary procedures.
An MoD spokesperson said: "Our frontline forces deserve the best possible kit, and action will be taken against those who deprive them of that. That is why we have successfully targeted the internet sale of MoD equipment.... By the end of 2010 it was estimated [we had] recovered and prevented theft worth more than £1.3m."
A former paratrooper, Warrant Officer Allan Peet, was given a 10-month prison sentence in 2010 for handling stolen MoD equipment and selling it on eBay. Items included day sacks and military issue footwear, hydration systems and ration packs, which he sold for a total of £6,500.
In 2009, three men were jailed for a total of 10 years for their part in a plot to sell components of an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet to Iran, after sourcing the parts from eBay.Reuse content