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Interceptor Controversy - Ebay Buyers Beware, The Marines Want You
The Interceptor Body Armor, or IBA is the newest and best body armor used by the US Military. It was first fielded by the US Marines as a replacement for the ageing PASGT vests which date to the early 1980s. While the PASGT vests provided fairly good protection when they were new, age and use has reduced the effectiveness of the armor over time. The US Army had updated armor for many front line and Special Operations units to the RBA, or Ranger Body Armor which included a detachable ceramic hard plate capable of stopping even high powered rifle bullets. That armor alone was also stronger than the PASGT even without the plates attached. Adding the large and heavy plates gave excellent protection against most common assault rifle and machinegun bullets. Marines, however took notice of the fact that RBA was considerably heavier than the PASGT armor and put out specifications for a lighter vest that would be compatible with the MOLLE system gear. What came about was the IBA from long time law enforcement supplier Point Blank. The IBA consists of a main vest which is rated level IIIA, some detachable groin and neck protectors similar to those used by police SWAT units, and a set of ceramic plates designed for added protection against high powered rifle bullets. The soft body armor component is very similar to commercially available police type vests but is upgraded for withstanding multiple hits and providing protection while keeping weight factors to a working minimum through the use of a material called Spectra which is integrated with the Kevlar panels. The removable ceramic hard plates use existing technology, but again were engineered for maximum protection with the lightest weight.
Recent controversy has surrounded the sale of IBA, (Interceptor Body Armor) made by Point Blank corporation on the Internet. An on ongoing investigation from the Defense Criminal Investigation Service, or DCIS has revealed a widespread network of theft and sale of Interceptor armor and other military equipment on the Internet, particularly Ebay. In the most recent high profile case, a Marine Staff Sergeant was caught and convicted of selling over a hundred vests which were provided to him by other persons who were apparently flimflamming military supply counts and skimming armor for sale to the highest bidders. SSgt. Marvin Funiestas, age 26 and described as a "good Marine" by his superiors and co workers was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of conspiracy, wrongfully selling government property and larceny in Late March of 2004. This was the result of a tip passed to Camp Pendleton NCIS agent Tony Flores from the DCIS office in San Diego as part of an ongoing investigation by agent Len Howard of DCIS. Prosecution in this case was handled by Capt Mark Spalding at the court martial. In the course of the investigation and subsequent interrogation of SSgt Funiestas, other suspects in the theft ring were identified, but as yet have not been charged. While shortages of advanced body armor are well known among Army and Air force personnel station overseas, especially among National Guard and Reserve units, Marine Corps officials refuse comment on whether or not specific Marine units have such shortages. Officers have stated in several press conferences that "we have this body armor for all of our troops who are in combat at this time". Marine officials refuse to comment on whether or not there are Marine units stateside with a surplus of such armor but they have told me that protocols for the destruction of used surplus IBA have been established as a policy directive to DRMO instead of releasing the armor for public sale or private purchase of any sort in any usable condition.
Records of Ebay auctions and customer lists of buyers of the Interceptor armor and other suspected stolen government property was obtained by military investigators who have launched an effort to recover the equipment which included complete sets of IBA including the coveted SAPI hard plates which were even exported to buyers in China. Many of the foreign buyers were most likely well heeled Airsoft scenario game enthusiasts who purchased the armor as a fashion statement for use in the realistic scenario games which have become popular with upper middle class teenagers and young professionals throughout China, Korea and Hong Kong. Other foreign buyers may not have had such innocent intentions. Special Agent Ken Maupin of the Pittsburgh branch of NCIS also identified during a phone interview that there were foreign buyers in Italy, Germany and Spain, but refused comment on whether or not they have identified buyers in traditionally "bad guy populated" countries like Iran, Libya, Columbia or anywhere in Africa. Monitoring of Ebay advertisers revealed around 500 sets of OTV and 500 SAPI plates that had been sold in the period they monitored Ebay sales starting in the middle of 2003. Maupin stated "we think this is the tip of the iceberg". Further investigations involving night vision equipment, certain military radios, and aircraft parts are yielding a look into others who have used Ebay as a conduit for stolen military equipment.
In nearly all cases, the government focus is on recovering the items while the buyers are left on their own for recovering their money. Criminal charges are not normally being filed against buyers who willingly give the items back to DOD representatives at DCIS. Of the buyers I have been in contact with, some were threatened with charges, but none who actually refused to give the gear back without compensation have been charged so far. Some are being allowed to keep the items on a case by case basis, usually involving service members currently serving in the Middle East. Members of other armed services facing the need for obtaining this body armor in a hurry in spite of shortages have been faced with two choices: buy the stolen armor at prices anywhere from $250 to $600 per set with few questions asked, or jump through the regulatory hoops with Point Blank and purchase a set for $650 to $1200 with the price varying according to how much markup the distributor factors into the order and how complete of a set the individual is willing to purchase. In the latter case, these buyers still face suspicion and scrutiny from those authorities who will assume the privately purchase armor or some components of it were stolen from another unit or branch of the military. In either event, larger sizes tend to cost more and are the hardest to get.
Of the 113 identified Ebay sellers of the armor, only 7 have actually faced federal charges but several investigations are ongoing as of April 7 2004 . It appears that those who have been criminally charged were blatantly and repeatedly selling the stolen government property, most of which was brand new. Apparently many of the ones who were "let off" had sold armor and or plates that had been found abandoned, given to them, or bought from other Ebay sellers. What is not clear in these cases is whether or not the buyers had to give up the armor while the sellers who cooperated with the investigations kept the money while providing contact information for the buyers. The Ebay subsidiary, Paypal, has apparently not been very forthcoming in helping the buyers recover money paid for the stolen armor if the purchases are over 30 days old, but Ebay is happily giving investigators private contact information of the buyers to investigating agents. If you have purchased suspect IBA, OTV or SAPI armor plates which appear to be government issue in the last 30 days and paid for them through Paypal, you should consider calling Paypal customer service at 402-935-2050 to review your options in recovering your money if you are contacted by a DCIS agent demanding that you surrender the item you purchased. All of the agents I spoke with stated that their job was the recovery of the government property while recovery of the money is the buyer's problem. Given that situation, I would strongly advise buyers to keep track of contact information for anyone they have bought this armor from, and at best, if the armor cannot be verified as an open sale from the manufacturer, what you have paid for is effectively a rental, not ownership, of the armor until the DCIS people come asking for it. Note, that only DOD connected agencies are authorized to recover the armor, not local law enforcement agencies. If you are in the military and have purchased this armor then are ordered by your superiors to turn it in, demand a written statement and receipt or else you might find yourself owing an additional set of armor to DCIS when they catch up with the person who sold it to you. Several violators of the purchase and distribution restrictions and at least one of the sellers of stolen body armor are civilian law enforcement officers. This has caused Point Blank to encourage its distributors NOT to sell IBA or OTV components to law enforcement personnel although there is not specifically any law against it and some law enforcement agencies have apparently bought the armor on a very limited basis.
It is estimated by some that around a third to half of the buyers were either members of the US military or their families who were purchasing the armor for use in the war zones, with the remainder being private individuals who bought it for various reasons. In the Funiestas case, 20 of the vests were purchased by a military gear distributor and most were resold to military and law enforcement personnel. That company is assisting in the recovery of the vests.
Some buyers have been identified as convicted felons who are restricted in their states and in federal statutes (violent felons only) from owning body armor, however there are not presently any significant controls on the distribution of other types of body armor through legal channels, and most states do not make it a crime for most citizens to own body armor. Interestingly, the status of military body armor on the list of "controlled munitions" also means that foreign nationals, legal or otherwise, cannot legally possess it in the United States according to DCIS and INS regulations. The same restriction applies to some night vision equipment and aircraft parts.
Federal agents, mostly from DCIS have been contacting the buyers of the stolen armor based on the contact information provided by Ebay to the investigators in the various investigations of the armor sellers. So far, only those buyers who have purchased from sellers known to have trafficked in stolen government property and either confessed or been convicted of such are being approached by agents with a request to surrender the armor. Individuals who purchased the armor through legitimate Point Blank dealers and distributors are not being singled out with any requests to turn in their body armor, however there is a persistent misunderstanding among the federal agents which has led to a general belief that the Interceptor armor is illegal for private ownership. This is due to some misunderstandings of conditions set forth in DOD contracts and some armor which has been sold to news organizations, private contractors, and individual service members and their families for use by service members deployed overseas. In either event, the legal distribution of IBA to persons other than government entities has been very limited. Although the armor is made by a number of government contract manufacturers, the primary contract is to the Point Blank corporation where they have recorded information on which vests were pulled from DOD specification production lines and sold to individuals and non DOD buyers. Rhonda Graves of Point Blank detailed this process which includes verification of the buyers and retaining the serial numbers of the vests for future reference. Using this combination of serial numbers and other coded markings, the company can determine who they shipped the vest to within 24 hours of receiving the information. She can be contacted at Point Blank in Florida at 1 800 413-5155. Buyers should also note that there were at least a few known fraud cases where other very similar armor and component parts were misrepresented as genuine Interceptor armor when they were not. This ads confusion to the fact that there are now other government contractors also making some components of the vests, along with some Asian made knockoffs. In the case of the Asian made knockoffs, the actual protection they may or may not provide is a real roll of the dice. Counterfeit hard plates have ranged from re-labeled British plates of equal quality, to simple formed plaster fakes which have been coated with fiberglass and painted to look like the real thing.
Point Blank and several other body armor and gear makers can and do construct custom and standard production body armor for the open market and private purchase which can match or exceed the performance characteristics of Interceptor armor. Survivalists, law enforcement personnel, gear enthusiasts and airsoft gamers are advised to purchase the other armor instead of military specification Interceptor. I think this is a smart move since the value of used Interceptor armor on the market is not going to be indefinitely tainted by the fact that the probably majority of the Interceptor OTV is of military origin and will be considered stolen property for a long time to come. Incidentally, the same situation does not apply to PASGT armor, which is considered "surplus" in most cases when it has reached the open market and used vests are considered "demil" under most circumstances on the basis of age alone according to DCIS because the Kevlar in many has deteriorated to some degree since the vests were new. My own tests have confirmed that some PASGT vests have in fact deteriorated below the NIJ level 2 that they had when they were new, but since the PASGT vests are neither numbered nor dated, it is nearly impossible to tell the age of such vests. I have been told that new PASGT vests have not been purchased by the US military since 1998, but many unused ones are still being taken out of warehouses and issued to troops in units with shortages of the more advanced armor.
Buyers and secondary sellers of the vests (people who sold or traded the vests that were originally purchased from the theft ring) are shocked to find little sympathy from government investigators. A SanFrancisco bay area man who had purchased two vests and then resold them was astonished to hear that DCIS investigators were demanding that he find and return the vests. "If they were watching Ebay and knew the vests were stolen when I bought them in good faith, then why didn't they stop it then? To make matters worse, they have the records of the Ebay auctions where I sold one of them later, and they are telling me they want me to get them a vest and are not bothering the buyer? What gives?" He went on to speculate how it looked to him like the government created the situation in order to open investigations on people they wanted to target anyway. "You know, if there was a way for them to find an excuse to get into people's business, then this would be it."
The secondary market has ranged from commercial equipment sellers to a wide range of private collectors, militia activists, Airsoft aficionados, and even some law enforcement personnel who bought and sold what they had believed was legitimate surplus. One Florida man who purchased a full Interceptor IBA at a pawn shop for $500 felt confident that the item was legal because it had passed through a police background check on the serial number through a system mandated by Florida regulations of pawn shops, but when faced with the fact that he could not legally take it with him to Israel for use while serving with the IDF, he stated "Nobody recorded the serial numbers and reported it lost or stolen to make it show up on the pawn shop item check they do through the state, so I hope my receipt is good for something. Now I just want to get rid of it. We are desperately short on body armor in Israel and I wanted to take a set with me, but this is just too risky. I think I got burned." A Colorado Police officer with a sideline "gear trading" hobby claimed to have bought and sold "a few" sets of the armor through several Internet forum classified ads noted an FBI bulletin from 2003 stating that the commercial SAPI plates were restricted items and had marketed his vests with commercial hard plates which would fit in the pockets of the OTVs. He noted in forums that the information in the FBI bulletin referred the situation with the government issue ceramic plates, not the outer vests.
One Marine Sergeant on leave after returning from Afghanistan related how he "ended up" with three extra OTVs and one extra set of SAPI. "They would issue a new vest every six months, so almost everyone ended up with extras at some point and supply was not taking them back. Now if I can't sell them, I might as well put them in the dumpster because I don't want it to cost me my career." As word rapidly spread throughout the Marine Corps about the conviction of SSgt Funiestas, many other Marines have made similar decisions. The salvation of careers has proven more desirable than making a few bucks on the side selling the leftover body armor to National Guard soldiers and reservists facing the possibility of deployment overseas.
This page will be updated with more information n this matter as it becomes available.
IBA - Interceptor Body Armor - Reference to complete sets or component parts of the system.
OTV - The Outer Tactical Vest component of the Interceptor armor system. Often sold and used independently of the rest of the vest system.
SAPI or ISAPI - Small Arms Protective Insert, or Individual Small Arms Protective Insert. The ceramic composite inserts designed to be installed in the pockets of Interceptor OTV in order to provide protection against high velocity rifle bullets.
RBA - Ranger Body Armor, a composite armor that predates Interceptor armor and was primarily developed for US Army Rangers but eventually issued to several Army units deployed in the Balkans, Haiti, and Somalia. It was most widely used during conflicts and deployments in the 1990s. Very few sets of this armor have reached the open market since not that many were made.
NCIS - Naval Criminal Investigative Service - The federal agency primarily concerned with investigative actions and law enforcement related to the Navy and Marine Corps.
DCIS _ Defense Criminal Investigative Service - The investigative and enforcement branch of the Inspector General's offices of the armed services. The investigate DOD related cases which are not otherwise covered by other agencies.
Point Blank - The primary manufacturer of Interceptor body armor for the US military http://www.pointblankarmor.com/index.asp
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