By ANNE EASKER
How thieves do it:
Florida ranks number one for boat thefts in the country, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and boats can be stolen on land or water. Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Richard Kaufman said he’s heard of people swimming through canals to scout out boats and docks. Other times, they’re stolen with trailers and trucks, typically in the Ford F-series.
Once a boat is stolen, it could be stripped, cloned, or taken overseas. Stripping is when thieves remove identifiers from a boat, including the hull identification number (HIN). To clone a watercraft, they take identifiers from a lower end model that may be legitimately purchased and put them on a stolen higher end model. This is especially easy for jet skis, Kaufman said.
“If you owned a rental company where you rent to tourists, you would usually use a low end Yamaha,” he said. “After two years, it’s really nothing but a hull by the time you’re done. So you sell it on Craigslist for $500. Then someone comes and buys it to get that paperwork from you, and then goes and gets a high end Yamaha and will put your HIN number on the one they’ve stolen. “
Currently, Kaufman said more boat thefts are happening on the East Coast, while the Gulf Coast’s numbers are down, but he expects that to switch as law enforcement on the East Coast cracks down. Marine thefts in Charlotte County peaked in 2017 with 49 thefts, dropping last year to 36. This year there have been just 11. Those numbers include motors, trailers, and lower end units in addition to the vessels themselves. For actual boats, there’s only been one reported stolen this year, compared to three last year and seven in 2017.
Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Kaitlyn Perez said anecdotally, the agency is “not seeing a lot of boat thefts in Sarasota County.”
What law enforcement is doing:
Intelligence-led policing. The Sheriff’s Office gathers information on locations, time frames, and target properties to deter theft with active patrols by special units, including aviation.
“When they can hear that chopper, it’s more of a huge deterrence,” Kaufman said.
Once a boat is stolen, the likelihood of a recovering it is often low, especially if the report is delayed. On the water, it can be hard for law enforcement to recognize a stolen boat, especially if it’s been cloned. They have to look at the totality of the circumstances.
“You’re out with your family, you’re out fishing, you’re going to have fishing poles, bait, a fishing license,” Kaufman said. “Sometimes, people have no license. They don’t have a fishing pole. They have no bait. They say they’re going out overnight, but they don’t even have a cooler.”
Communication and teamwork between agencies is also a huge piece of the puzzle.
“Bad guys don’t have jurisdictions; we do,” he said. “I have no authority outside of Charlotte County. So if I have something that takes place, say we get hit here and the boat is stopped by FHP, they call us... (If) I know who I need to reach out to in Broward County, it makes it a whole lot easier.”
What you can do:
Have pictures of your boat and know the registration, HIN number, and other identifiers.
“If their boat is on a lift, I would be sure the power is off the lift from a breaker inside the house, not just a switch on the dock,” said Rick Sommers, store manager at the Boathouse of Port Charlotte. “There’s some extreme cases where they’ve cut the cables, but that hasn’t really happened in our area. Having cameras or an automatic light that comes on when you walk on the dock.”
There are also GPS trackers that can alert owners if their boat goes outside a certain geo-fence area.
“Anything that makes it inconvenient to steal your boat as opposed to the boat next door,” said Ron Schebil, harbormaster at Fishermen’s Village Marina. “Those kind of crimes are the crimes of opportunity. They’ll move on to the next one.”