On any random day, more than 114 million items are listed for sale on eBay.
More than 6 million new items are listed every day through 39 trading platforms worldwide. Craigslist, while smaller in scope and localized to individual markets, is another site of brisk sales of almost any imaginable item.
Unfortunately, the two sites are also popular destinations for the sale of sensitive and stolen defense-related items never intended for resale, including F-14 airplane parts, nuclear-biological-chemical gear and body armor plates.
"It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to understand the troubling nature of some of these items being sold online," Rep. John Tierney, chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, said at a hearing earlier this month. "For instance, Iran is the only country currently operating F-14s."
As part of the committee's ongoing probe of illegal sales of military items, Tierney ordered a Government Accountability Office study of the items available over the Internet. The GAO found numerous defense-related items for sale to the highest bidder on eBay and Craigslist.
"During the period of investigation, GAO undercover investigators purchased a dozen sensitive items on eBay and Craigslist to demonstrate how easy it was to obtain them," the report states.
"While potential buyers for some sensitive items certainly include hobbyists, military enthusiasts and emergency response or law enforcement units, the ... cases clearly show the real risk that illegal weapons brokers, terrorists and unauthorized agents of foreign governments also number among potential buyers."
GAO investigators also found a robust online market for stolen military property including Kevlar vests, flak jackets, gas masks and ready-to-eat meals. Tierney said he was concerned about taxpayer-funded equipment being stolen and sold for profit, "especially with respect to items currently in demand by our service members fighting abroad."
The GAO report noted that eBay and Craigslist are just two of the many online auction outlets and that, in many cases, the online sale of military items is legal.
"Although it is not illegal to buy and sell some defense-related items domestically, many sensitive items are manufactured strictly for military purposes and were never meant to be a part of everyday American life," the report said.
Both eBay and Craiglist stressed that their policies do not allow the sale of illegal items, but readily admitted it happens.
"The business models of Craigslist and eBay are fundamentally different, with eBay providing a single, global marketplace and Craigslist providing hundreds of separate local marketplaces," Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster told Tierney's committee.
"Under the circumstances, we believe Craigslist does not deserve the equal billing it received with eBay throughout the report, implying Craigslist approaches eBay as a marketplace for the re-sale of sensitive defense-related items."
Todd Cohen, eBay's deputy general counsel for government relations, said the online auction giant is working to build detection tools to flag listings of potentially illegal military items.
"As we are dealing with millions of items, we need a multipronged approach to flagging and removing listings that have no business being on eBay," Cohen said. "Any eBay member can report an item to us instantly by simply clicking the 'Report This Item' at the bottom of every item listing on eBay."