Owners Can Reduce Boat Theft With Basic Steps 

Boat theft reports in Oregon are the lowest in decades, and the recovery rate for stolen boats is at an all-time high. The trends follow new measures taken by the Oregon State Marine Board and Oregon’s marine patrol officers to deter thefts and recover stolen boats and motors.

How much have the numbers shifted? “We averaged 115 to 120 stolen boat reports annually over the last five years,” says Cole Hughes, of the Marine Board’s Law Enforcement Program. “We recovered about one-third of them each year.” The national boat theft recovery rate averages 10 to 15 percent, according to Hughes.

Hughes credits a new database of stolen boats and motors, improved training and diligence of marine law enforcement officers, and better coordination by Marine Board staff. “We’re scrutinizing every new registration now,” said Hughes. “We get numerous suspicious phone calls where, when we start asking the right questions about a boat’s history, the caller hangs right up. By making it difficult to register the stolen boat, you’ve either reduced the reason to steal it in the first place or you’ve forced them to take it to another state to try and register it there.”

According to Hughes, Marine Board staff is combining old theft data going back decades with new and existing state and federal databases of stolen boats. This new body of information is readily available to officers and the Marine Board’s registration desk. Marine officers now regularly check hull identification numbers (HINs) during safety checks and enforcement stops, and check them against the database. “We’ve always cross-checked current registrations, but against a much smaller database of stolen boats,” said Hughes.  “This is much broader and more effective.”

Despite the improved enforcement mechanisms, the best way to deal with boat theft is to never buy a stolen boat, and make sure your boat doesn’t get stolen, said Hughes.

“When you’re buying a boat, always check the boat’s HIN number to make sure it exactly matches the HIN listed on the registration and title information that goes with the boat,” says Hughes. The HIN is located on the transom, usually on the upper right side. Hughes also suggested looking for the following fraud indicators:

  • Has the boat been rebuilt; was it previously reported stolen; is it newly painted; was it sunk or recovered.
  • Is the title or proof of ownership a duplicate issue or from out of state.
  • Do registration numbers appear altered in any way.
  • Is the asking price well below the market value? If it seems to good to be true, it probably is. If you buy a $500 personal watercraft in another state, but the owner can’t find the paperwork, the process of registering it in Oregon will be long, hard and, perhaps, impossible.

“Never purchase a boat if the seller is unable to produce a title or proof of ownership,” says Hughes. “It’s just not worth the risk, and you’ll likely end up a victim because you won’t be able to register or use the boat and it will likely be seized by law enforcement. If you have any doubts at all, get the boat’s registration number and call us. We’ll check it out for you. A legitimate seller won’t mind if you do this.”

Of course, after purchasing your boat, Hughes recommends a few actions to prevent your watercraft from being stolen in the first place. “Store your equipment in a secure place to increase the amount of time it would take to steal it,” said Hughes. “Put a thief in a position in which you will most likely hear them, and make sure your equipment is easily visible to you and your neighbors so you can see any activity. Time, noise and visibility all deter this type of theft.” 

Hughes also advises marking the boat’s contents to discourage a thief and enable authorities to trace lost or stolen items.  Photographing the equipment will aid in its recovery and serve as documentation for your insurance company.  Prepare a written inventory of the watercraft, trailer, electronics, motors and other gear.  Store equipment someplace other than inside the watercraft. Take the gear home or store it indoors or in another safe place.  If theft does occur, report it immediately.   

“Small outboards are a popular item to steal because they’re easy to remove and transport, they’re high-dollar items and they’re easy to sell,” said Hughes. “Yet few people record the serial number, and relatively few victims report the motor as stolen. Some basic steps will help prevent the theft and aid in recovery.”

Courtesy of Oregon State Marine Board and Lane County Sheriff's Office Marine Patrol