Last year Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's year-old Marine Theft Investigations Team recovered 123 stolen boats and personal watercraft valued at more than $800,000.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Department officials estimate currently only 10 to 20 percent of stolen boats are ever found.
Made up of nine game wardens from around the state, the theft team has a daunting task and is hamstrung by having to do their other duties as well. With more than 600,000 registered boats and personal watercraft in the state, spotting a stolen boat can be like finding an individual drop of water in a lake.
"Last year there were 6,000 boats and PWCs stolen across the country," said Game Warden Sgt. Ned Nichols, a member of the theft team and a 12-year veteran of investigating boat thefts. "Out of those 6,000, 3,000 (combined) were stolen in California, Florida and Texas. Texas was No. 2 in stolen PWCs and No. 3 in stolen boats."
Nichols explained that wardens have always attempted to recover stolen boats through water safety checks and the titling process, but this team has had beefed up training in tax and title fraud along with dealer inspection and other recovery methods.
Stolen boat recovery is difficult for a number of reasons, the least of which thefts are reported to any of a multitude of law enforcement agencies in Texas and at this time there isn't the concerted coordination like there is with vehicles. Compounding the situation is that there are still a number of states that don't require boat title registration, allowing stolen boats to be filtered through one of those states, branded with a new identification number then transported to another state where it is titled and sold.
Recovery can also be hampered by the nature of the theft. A boat could be gone for months before the owner discovers it.
"It happens everywhere, but storage areas are a big one," Nichols said of boat theft locations. "They also occur at boat docks and lake houses where the owners are not there for the winter. That is the perfect place to steal one."
However, he added that a boat and trailer sitting at a house or lakeside are just as likely targets.
While boat theft is a statewide issue it is especially endemic in big cities like Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. If possible the boats are just taken from one city to the other and sold, often using free classified websites like Craigslist and EBay. Nichols said boats that are more difficult to unload are the ones often taken out of state and retitled before being moved again and sold.
Nichols said that spring and summer are the most common times of year for a theft, but that it can happen any month.
"They are targeting 18- to 21-foot boats and PWCs," Nichols said. "The size is the big thing. They don't seem to care if it is a fishing boat or a pleasure boat."
He explained the size is important because that is what is most sought-after by families since stolen boats are typically resold and not parted out like vehicles.
And while most thieves are individuals, Nichols said there are at times theft rings working as well.
"We had a group that was stealing boats in Minnesota; they were stealing expensive boats, $70,000 to $100,000," Nichols said. "They went through one of the Dakotas where they don't require registering, retitled them and then were selling them on Craigslist. Two of them came down here and we were able to recover them and another was recovered in Canada."
Unfortunately beyond tongue locks, locking it in a secure place, removing the keys and checking on it periodically, there isn't a lot owners can do to safeguard their boat. Nichols said he has talked to the manufacturer of the LoJack theft technology system for vehicles, but unfortunately it requires a live battery and boat batteries often die during the offseason.
But there are things buyers can do to keep from buying a stolen boat and losing their money. It starts by realizing if someone is offering a $30,000 boat for a quarter of the cost and are only willing to meet in a parking lot and take cash, there is probably something wrong.
Dealing with an individual, and some cases unscrupulous dealers, buyers can get stuck with a boat they cannot title or has liens against it.
Nichols said one thing buyers can do is ask a regional Law Enforcement office or go online to the TPWD website's Boating section to see if the ID and Texas registration numbers are good and match, and that the person selling the boat is actually the owner.
It also is not a bad idea for both sides to conduct the transaction at the Law Enforcement office so the title can be instantly transferred from one name to another.
TPWD is asking anyone with information about a boat theft or boat registration fraud to call its Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-792-4263.
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