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RAF MILDENHALL, England — Two years ago it was a group of nine Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., who fell after the woman trying to fence their goods sold them to an undercover agent.

Last year it was a trio of airmen based out of Moody Air Force Base, Ga., who were apprehended after local police arrested a gang member clad in an Air Force-issued bulletproof vest.

This year, two airmen based out of Mildenhall were nabbed for stealing military hardware and reselling it over the Internet.

Just this month, federal agents in Kentucky arrested a government employee suspected of using eBay to sell stolen military gear.

Civilian and military law enforcement officials are combating a potentially dangerous scheme in which criminals steal lifesaving equipment from their employer in search of a quick and easy buck.

“This is really nothing new,” said Jim Ives, assistant deputy director for national security at the Defense Criminal Investigative Service headquarters. “We’ve seen this type of scenario … for some time. … It just comes off as a more heinous crime because we are in a time of war.”

For years the military authorities have been combating the theft and resale of military goods by what a top investigator referred to as “a few bad apples.”

But the global proliferation of the Internet and the use of auction sites such as eBay to sell stolen merchandise means investigators are having to cast their nets wider to apprehend the thieves and reacquire the pilfered goods.

Whereas investigators used to patrol Army and Navy surplus stores and flea markets for pawned merchandise, they are now surfing the Internet.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have fueled the recent surge in thefts because there are more items flowing across the military’s equipment pipeline, hence more opportunity for the would-be thief.

“Everything we have now has added a lot of new dynamics to the game,” Ives said.

DCIS, the military’s investigative branch for large-scale crime, is running two operations in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies aimed at stomping out crime from within the services.

Operation High Bidder has agents roaming through eBay and other Internet auction sites to track down people selling the hardware, while Operation Technology Sweep focuses on identifying and prosecuting the sources of illegally obtained equipment.

Ives said their work is undercover but not hidden from the public. “We do the best we can to publicize these matters,” he said. “People need to realize we are out there investigating these crimes every day.”

The main conduit for the stolen goods, eBay, has been a willing partner in the government’s campaign to thwart the resale of stolen military goods, said Ives.

“eBay strictly forbids the sale of stolen property, which violates state, federal and international law,” said a policy statement from the Web site to Stars and Stripes. “eBay strongly supports law enforcement efforts to recover stolen property that is listed on its Web site, and urges the prosecution of those responsible for knowingly attempting to sell such items on eBay.”

It’s difficult to quantify the damage inflicted by stealing a couple of bulletproof vests or a few pairs of night vision goggles. A dollar amount can be assigned to each item, but the damage can be fatal if the wrong person comes into ownership of such sophisticated gear.

“What they have not realized is that items could end up in the hands of someone trying to harm American forces,” Ives said. “There are foreign adversaries trying to get their hands of this stuff.”

Officials in the United Kingdom were unable to track down several vests that Senior Airman Thurstan L. Freeman and Airman Fredrick Williams sold on eBay that ended up in Asia. Both are behind bars now for their crimes.

Airman Todd L. Boutte and Airman 1st Class Jared W. Roberts are in a military brig after a Georgia sheriff’s deputy arrested a gang member who was wearing an Air Force-issued vest the two sold for $100 on the street.

And if the goods exit the information superhighway in a country not on the best terms with the United States, the hardware may disappear forever; leaving investigators hoping the goods don’t provide America’s enemies an advantage on the field of battle.

“That is always our worst nightmare,” Ives said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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