Early on a Monday morning in June, Frank Passani received the 6:00am phone call every boat owner dreads. It was a policeman ringing to inform him that his boat had been found beached and badly damaged on the shore of Port Beach in Cottesloe, WA.
'That can't be right,' Passani remembers thinking, 'that boat is tied up at a jetty on Rottnest Island, 10 nautical miles from Port Beach.' But after racing down to the beach, he realised it was no mistake. There indeed was his boat, planted hard up against the shore, half full of water and sand.
Here's the twist: Passani's boat was a 20-year-old emergency vessel, purpose-built for the Fremantle Sea Rescue team, complete with the word 'RESCUE' emblazoned on the port and starboard sides of the hull and flashing blue lights on top.
It was stolen some time in the early morning hours by people who, unaware they were being filmed by a CCTV camera, jumped on to the boat, smashed the lock on the door, started the motor and sped off towards the mainland. In the morning, when the battered craft was spotted beached and taking in water, its blue lights were still flashing.
Fortunately, Fremantle Sea Rescue is insured by Club Marine, and was reimbursed the total cost of the boat, which was deemed a write-off. Turning the catastrophe to its advantage, the rescue team used the proceeds of the payout towards the purchase of a fast-response medivac boat; a first for the state of WA.
Passani is still shaking his head about the ordeal. "You would think that a rescue boat would be the last thing you would steal. It's like breaking into an ambulance," he says. "I mean, even the most hardened criminal would have to think: 'they might have to use this boat to rescue somebody'."
Ironically, the stolen vessel had been used in the search and recovery of stolen boats countless times in its 20 years of service.
Two things were proven by the unwitting stars of the CCTV footage (who were later caught and are now awaiting their court date). One: a boat can be stolen faster than you could ever imagine; and two: you don't need to be a genius to do it.
A look at the nationwide statistics on boat theft shows that it is more common than most would believe. In 2009, Club Marine processed 574 theft claims related to stolen boats, trailers and equipment. And for 2010, the statistics are sadly trending in the same direction. Between January and June 2010, Club Marine processed 327 theft claims. Other marine insurance providers report similar trends. Add to that the number of uninsured boat owners affected by other types of crime, and a sobering portrait of boat theft in Australia begins to emerge.
What these gloomy totals don't reveal is that, even as boat owners are benefiting from new anti-crime technology, organised crime groups are increasingly involved in the lucrative activity of boat theft. To fight this development, legislators need to consider serious policy changes in the way we track and identify recreational boats in Australia.
Probably the worst example of this new breed of organised crime made the news just a few months ago, when the Queensland Organised Crime Investigation Unit dismantled a syndicate that used a loophole in national boat registration laws to steal boats and re-register them in Queensland with new identifiers, then trade them interstate with new identities. The syndicate was charged with numerous boat thefts, with craft concerned ranging in value from $65,000 to $140,000.
Like everyone else in the local marine community, Club Marine's Queensland State Manager, Brett Edmonds says he was concerned, but not surprised, by the sophisticated techniques the felons used. "The thieves would steal the boats, look online for new Hull Identification Numbers (HINs), rebirth them and sell them interstate," Edmonds explains.
According to Edmonds, many other vessels vanished in the same time period, including 58 complete boat, motor, trailer or PWC packages. The thefts were obviously the work of organised criminals, working off a shopping list that included ski boats and high-end power boats. "There's no question that many of the boats were targeted," Edmonds says. "Some were behind locked fences."
prevention and recovery
Detective Sergeant Renee Kurtz, of the Queensland Vehicle Crime Investigation Police Unit, along with Detective Sergeant Peter Ziser, led the investigation that exposed the Queensland syndicate. As Kurtz explains, in the theft of vehicles of any kind, there are two types of offenders: the opportunistic and the professional. "The opportunistic criminals are those who steal, say, a jet-ski because they can see it's not locked up," she says. "Professionals target specific boats for rebirthing interstate."
Kurtz explained that, while the police can target the professionals by focussing on improving recovery techniques, it's important for boat owners to realise that there are things they can do as well that will make theft almost impossible for the professionals and completely out of the question for the opportunist. "Prevention," Kurtz says, "is the first line of defence."
The Detective Sergeant is quick to point out that the prevention ethic extends to potential boat buyers as well. "Do your homework before you buy a used boat," she warns, "and remember, the REV (Registry of Encumbered Vehicles) certificate will no longer suffice."
The Registry of Encumbered Vehicles is a database of vehicles that carry a debt burden ('Encumbered' refers to the fact that there could be money owing on the vehicle or that the registered owner may not own the vehicle outright). The REV is used by buyers to determine whether a vehicle or boat has money owing on it before they make a purchase.
An REV for boats is available in some states, but no national database. Also, the registry procedure differs from state to state, much like the HIN database. (Victoria, for example, doesn't have an REV at all). In NSW, the REV is specific to boats that originate only in NSW.
The REV check only picks up money owing on vessels or if they are stolen under those identifiers. Where vessels have been rebirthed, the true nature is never reflected. "Unfortunately, when police track down the stolen vessel, it's returned to the original owner," says Kurtz. "All this leaves the person who bought the stolen boat out of pocket quite substantially. To guard against this, buy from reputable dealers and, again, do your homework."
The second line of defence is recovery. One of the recovery measures Queensland police advocate is the establishment of a national Hull Identification Number (HIN) database. Although state vehicle crime units regularly exchange information, Kurtz says having a single database of stolen and registered boats across Australia would provide the agencies with a straightforward way to share information in theft investigations, which would speed up recovery of lost boats and help them catch the bad guys.
But the idea for the national database is still in its infancy, says Kurtz, and boat owners will have to hold the line until it is instituted. "In the future, there might be an established database of HIN numbers and technologies may be developed to make the recovery of vessels much easier," Kurtz says. "But in the meantime, boat owners can do their part by securing their property the best they can."
The really interesting thing about the debate over a national HIN database is that we've been through it all before. In the late '90s, Australia had the second highest motor vehicle theft rate in the western world. When a national task force was established in 1996 to confront the problem, one of the first suggestions it had was to implement a national registry on motor vehicles based on Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs).
So, in 1999, a National Exchange of Vehicle and Driver Information system was set up, which linked all state and territory registration databases and established a VIN database. The result: a decrease in automobile theft, a fact recently confirmed by the 2009-10 Australian Bureau of Statistics Year Book, which reported that motor vehicle theft has fallen to its lowest level since reporting began in 1993.
The marine industry has yet to adopt a similar approach. Unlike automobiles, registration of boats in Australia still differs from state to state. In some states, a HIN isn't compulsory; some states only register the trailer, some the boats, some states use the BoatCode identification system, others do not.
Meanwhile, as the VIN database tightened the noose on interstate car theft rings, the criminals moved on to boats. Recognising the inconsistencies in the national boat registration system, gangs moved in and began focussing on stealing boats in one state and rebirthing them in another.
As CEO of Australia's largest provider of marine insurance, Club Marine's Greg Fisher has been following this situation closely. Fisher has argued that state authorities need to adopt some form of national registry for boat hulls. As he explains it, even though our law enforcement agencies are restricted by state and territory borders, boat thieves are not. "When you can take a boat and move it to another state, and there is no process in place to inhibit that, you have a problem," he says.
Echoing the advice of Detective Sergeant Kurtz, Fisher goes on to explain another reason a national HIN database is essential: to ensure that boat owners know the status of the boat they're buying at the point of sale. "Imagine what it would be like to unwittingly buy a stolen boat," he says. "Then comes the day you need to file a claim on some damage and it's immediately impounded by the police. It's probably one of the worst things that could happen to a boat owner – to lose your investment, through no fault of your own – and that's why I'm such a strong supporter of the HIN database."
Until the day the HIN database is established, Club Marine is exploring new ways to encourage its members to arm themselves with boat identification technologies that are currently available. "It's an educational process," Fisher says. "The police are educating themselves about tag identifiers, boat owners are learning about theft deterrents and Club Marine is learning about the merits and drawbacks of every anti-theft product on the market."
Fisher says he is optimistic about the future. As more and more people – whether boat owners, insurers or the police – recognise these issues and respond to them, he believes we can expect new solutions to emerge. "There is no 'silver bullet'," he says. "But there is a cumulative range of measures – tags, tracking devices and, most importantly, a national hull registry database – that, taken together, will provide a bulwark of theft prevention measures for boat owners across the country."
10 Tips for keeping your boat
- Get insured. Make sure you insure your boat adequately and read your insurance policy carefully.
- Know your boat. Take your unhealthy obsession with your boat's scratches, dings and smears and turn it into something positive. Memorise any distinguishing marks as well as any customisations or after-market equipment that has been added to your boat. In a dispute over ownership, your ability to point out these distinctive features might make all the difference.
- Consider a professional theft-deterrent system, especially if you have a luxury boat. Alarm systems like BlueRay, which send an instant SMS (text message) notification to the owner's phones when the boat is moved and tracks the vessel's GPS location so it can be recovered.
- Recovery systems with tag identification like Nano Tag and Data Dot. HIN dot spray systems feature thousands of tiny microdots all laser-etched with the matching HIN of the boat. The dots are sprayed throughout the boat's major component parts and accessories.
- Keep records of all serial numbers – off your boat. Write down the HIN and serial numbers of your engine and electronic equipment and keep them in a safe place. A simple notebook filled with these numbers and a few notes about your boat's identifiable features could be enormously helpful for the police and Club Marine claims personnel.
- Keep your receipts. If a thief can't steal the boat, he may select some of the onboard gear and equipment as compensation. A record of your purchases will expedite your claims.
- Don't put your valuables on display. The showroom is the only place where your boat's amenities need to be on display. When away from your boat for a short time, take what you can and hide what you can't. Remove the equipment completely and store it in a lock-box when you put your boat into long-term storage.
- Name your boat. Part of the fun of owning a boat is giving it a name, but it could also aid in its recovery. Names, of course, can be painted over. You can also etch the boat's name and serial number in an area on the boat that is hard to find, but will be identifiable by the police.
- Photograph your boat. We all have photos of our boat, but usually they feature a person holding a drink or a fish. Next time you head out, take the time to walk around your boat and snap a few pictures. Print the photos and store them with your notebook.
- Make your boat look hard to steal. Keep your boat in a safe, well-lit place. If it's on a trailer, use a trailer hitch lock, or wheel clamps. If you can, keep your boat behind a fence.
Remember: 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure'. As Detective Sergeant Renee Kurtz explained during our interview: "No matter what police skills or technologies we have to investigate thefts, at the end of the day, prevention of theft trumps even the best investigations."