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Don’t be a Victim of Boat Theft – How to Avoid Buying a Stolen Boat

The number of boats stolen each year has been steadily on the increase, to the point where it now exceeds many thousands of boats annually both in the USA and Europe.

According to the US National Crime Insurance Bureau (NCIB), boat theft is a $40,000,000+ business in the United States alone. As the season nears, boat theft increases to as many as 1,000 boats stolen a month! Like cars, SUVs and trucks, boats offer thieves an opportunity to make huge profits. But unlike cars, boats are much easier to pass off as genuine! Who checks???

The chances of becoming a victim are uncomfortably high. In some areas, stolen boats account for more than 7% of inventory!


The thought of unwittingly purchasing a stolen boat does not occur to most boat buyers. Many buyers unknowingly make a purchase and don’t discover their mistake until it is too late. Don’t be a victim, check it before your boat and your money is gone.

Most people who purchase a stolen boat are never aware of the fact that they are the owner of a stolen boat unless it's discovered by a state title agency, or by a bounty hunter commissioned by an insurance company. The bad news is that even though you may never realize you have purchased a stolen boat, when it is discovered, you loose the boat, usually with no recourse for recovery of this loss. In fact, you may even find yourself trying to fend off criminal charges of being in possession of stolen property.

Don’t be the person that buys a stolen boat. Whilst some are stripped for parts and the evidence destroyed, the vast majority of stolen boats end up being altered in various ways and then resold! You could be the buyer.

Most stolen boats that are resold have only a minor change in the Hull Identification Number (HIN). Because these numbers are molded into the plastic of the hull, it is a very simple process to alter. Hull numbers can be completely changed, or just have one or a few digits altered. Either way, it's a process that a thief can quickly and simply accomplish.

However, the good news is, that boats also have other identification numbers such as engine serial numbers and it is rare that these get removed or modified and in the instance that a HIN has been altered, the engine numbers can remain as a means of positively identifying a stolen boat. In addition boatfax can search against number sequences to see if there is a possible match, even though the original number may have been significantly tampered with.

Don’t be caught out – Check the HIN:

Take a careful look at the Hull Identification Number (HIN). This is normally molded into the right hand outside of the transom (see What is the HIN?) On some boats the Hull Number may be on a metal plate fixed in the same position. Note: There are some major European manufacturers who position the HIN on the rear of the starboard (RH) side of the boat (just around the corner from the normal transom position).

Always look for the following evidence of possible HIN tampering or corruption:

HIN Format: Since 1972 (Europe 1996) HIN Numbers generally conformed to a standard format. The main number must be 12 characters long and may display a 2 character country code pre-fix (to make it 14 characters long for European requirements). Note: European HIN format must contain the Country Code information and be 14 characters long. For more information see articles HIN Formats or What is the HIN?

HIN Replacement: A more radical approach often used when there is a desire to change or copy the complete identity of a boat. Either the old HIN is dug out and a different one molded into the Gel coat or a plate is fixed over the original HIN with a different number. Look carefully for signs of mismatch in Gel color, cracking or witness marks created though the process of digging out the HIN. Note: Gel coat will fade with time and if newer Gel coat has been applied this will show as a slightly different color. Always be cautious of a plate. Be sure this looks original and if it can be easily removed – it is probably not the original! If in doubt check the HIN on www.boatfax.com or call the manufacturer and verify the HIN and the method of attachment. 
Obscured HIN: Be wary of pieces of equipment being fastened over the HIN. Always remove these to check the HIN. Check for a HIN being obscured by paint or gel finishes; can be a sign of an attempt to cover up a HIN alteration or purposely make the HIN difficult to read.    
Character Confusion: Unfortunately as a HIN can be composed of any letter or number and there is no current means of character checking in the number format, often confusion exists with the letters O & 0, I & 1,B & 8. In addition the following letters get misread V & U. Carefully check the HIN and the documentation for consistency and again check the HIN on www.boatfax.com for verification. 

HIN Copies: Most boat manufacturers will also affix one or more exact copies of the HIN in other parts of the boat. Often these are in hidden areas of the boat, but may be placed in an easily accessible section of the bow in open dinghy’s and RIBs. If you suspect the transom HIN has been tampered, try and find the copy and compare. It is very rare that the copies are tampered or removed.

At all times cross check the HIN with the documentation on the boat. Try to find the copy HIN and make sure that this matches the transom HIN. Check the Validity of the HIN on www.boatfax.com.  Always be cautious about the HIN until you have verified it.

Whilst HIN numbers can be easily tampered with, it is rare that the engine serial numbers get tampered at the same time. Often a stolen boat can be recognised by its engine numbers. When possible, always check the engine serial numbers against documentation. boatfax checks and cross checks HIN numbers, serial numbers, registration numbers & other entered information. A stolen boat can be recognised by the serial number information entered even if the HIN has been significantly tampered with.

And there’s more: boatfax uses sophisticated software techniques to detect corrupt characters, format anomalies, number tampering and out of sequence components so you can be sure that boatfax can detect invalid information.

If in doubt check it on www.boatfax.com

boatfax – helping you to make better buying decisions.

Be smart – Use boatfax.

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Updated: Jun 23 at 08:37.   v.4.6
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