How To Know If A Boat Is Stolen? (Easy Guide)

Each year more and more boats are stolen worldwide.

Boats are much easier to strip for parts and resell than cars, making them a lucrative target for thieves, scammers who take advantage of unsuspecting buyers.

Before we get into how to protect yourself, let’s discuss the most common ways thieves and scammers get away with their crimes.

Stolen Boats:

Boats are easier to steal than cars.

They have fewer security features, less government regulation, and are often stored in easy access locations.

Many boats in trafficking areas are stolen for smuggling operations then destroyed, while others are stolen for their resale value.

Normally, stolen boats are stripped for parts and accessories, and the hulls are destroyed or shipped to another location for sale. Motors are sold for parts or their serial numbers altered before the sale.

If the boat is going to be sold, criminals must change or alter the Hull Identification Number(HIN) and obtain or forge new government documents like title and registration.

HINs started in the United States on August 1, 1972. Manufactured hulls after this date are required to have a HIN. It may sound difficult to obtain new government documents, but many locales have homemade boat provisions that allow amateur fabricators to register a boat with no documentation.

Also, It is difficult for understaffed bureaucracies to conduct due diligence when processing applications, making it easier for criminals to slip through the cracks. Boat trailers are another issue, but many areas do not require any registration or titles for trailers, making them of little concern for criminals.

For boats registered at the national level, documents become much more difficult to obtain legally and are normally forged.


The primary scam out there, though it is becoming more infrequent, is for unscrupulous people to sell their boat legally, then report it stolen for the insurance money.

This can become a real problem for whoever bought the boat, leaving them with little recourse when authorities recover the “stolen” craft.

The only way to recoup damages is through costly litigation, and, in the worst case, this can implicate you as a conspirator in the crime.

Scammers also use the internet to con buyers out of their money.  To do this, they will post a boat for sale on a free classified ad website.  The boat listed will usually be a popular boat that is a few years old, in perfect shape, and listed for a perfect price.

They will ask for money to be wired through a third party and tell you that they will ship the boat at their expense.

While not quite a scam, another issue is when two people jointly own a boat, and one person tries to sell without the other’s permission.

This can happen during divorce and creates a legal quagmire that no one wants to be a part of.

11 Tips to Protect Yourself and Your Boat:

1) Never Buy a Boat Sight Unseen

It is tempting when searching for a boat to jump at that great deal or to buy your perfect boat in another location and have it shipped.

If you are looking for a specific boat and the only options are too distant, make sure to find a broker or dealer in the local area to inspect the boat on your behalf.

Make sure that you are paying the broker’s commission and check their credentials.

2) Check all Documentation

A reputable seller will have all the required documents for your area.

You should thoroughly check all titles, registrations, maintenance records, build sheets, and purchase receipts to make sure all numbers match and that they are legitimate.

Check your local titling and registration agency, like the department of natural resources in the U.S., to ensure the documents are in the appropriate format and have the correct seals.

Check all numbers on the documents against the numbers on the boat, paying particular attention to the HIN and registration number.

Also, make sure that all parties listed on the title agree with the sale.

3) Check for Altered HINs, Serial Numbers, and Registration Numbers

This can be tricky as it is relatively easy to alter or change these numbers.

Look for scratched numbers, fresh paint, missing or dirty serial number plates, and residue from missing registration decals.

Hull Identification Numbers:

The HIN is usually located on the transom of most small boats and runabouts.

A common way of obscuring or altering this number is by removing the old number from the hull and replacing it with a new one or simply painting over it. To change the number completely, the area must be repainted, and a new gel coat applied.

Beware of any freshly painted boat and triple check to ensure the HIN is original and completely visible.

If the boat falls under the homemade boat provision and does not have a HIN, scour the hull inside and out for any manufacturing or branding marks like logos.

Normally, any branding marks will disqualify a boat for this provision and should raise suspicion.

Serial Numbers:

Serial numbers are found on motors.

For outboards, the serial number will be on a plate or decal near the motor mount. For inboards…you have to find it; it is usually on a metal tag attached directly to the motor’s block.

There will be another number that is cast directly into the block. This is the casting number, not the serial number. Another helpful tip is to know the format of serial numbers produced by the manufacturer.

Look up the motor’s brand, and you should be able to find how they organize their numbers.

If the serial number of a boat you’re interested in doesn’t have the correct format, then beware.

Registration Numbers:

Every country has a different format for registration numbers, so make sure you know your area’s format.

In the U.S., registration numbers follow the general format of XX-1234-XX.

The first two letters are usually the state abbreviation like TN for Tennessee.

The numbers and last two letters are unique to the boat. Registration numbers in the U.S. also have a decal before or after the number that will have a year the registration expires.

If the seller allowed the registration to expire, it probably means the boat has sat for a while; it isn’t necessarily an ominous sign.

In some states, the registration number is unique to the boat, while it can change with ownership in others. A quick search online will tell you your local rules for registrations.

Registration numbers are found on the forward half of the hull above the waterline on either side.

They must be in a contrasting color to the boat and must be in three-inch block style lettering or visible from a certain distance, depending on local laws. Also, a registration card or document must be on the vessel to be legal.

To know if a registration number has been changed, look for residue from the previous stickers.

Most boat owners use adhesive letters for their registration numbers. When they are removed, the marine grade adhesive usually leaves a residue that is difficult to wash off.

Run your hand along the area where the registration numbers are, and feel for any discrepancies that indicate an altered registration.

You can even rub a little dirt on the area to look for adhesive residue, but a reputable seller may not appreciate you rubbing dirt on their boat so reserve this tactic for suspicious cases.

Any time the registration number is from a different state or country near your area, use caution.

Recall that stolen boats are usually shipped to another location for resale and beware.

Federal Registration:

In the U.S., any vessel over five net tons, which is usually any vessel over 25ft, must be Federally registered.

These boats will have the vessel name and hailing port in one location, normally the stern. The letters must be at least four inches in height and be clearly visible.

Most will have the vessel name on both sides of the bow, although this is not a requirement for recreational vessels. There must also be a number clearly posted in three-inch block style Arabic numerals somewhere on the boat’s interior.

The original certificate of documentation must be present.

If you are buying a federally registered craft, I highly recommend using a reputable document search service.

These are businesses that specialize in finding all relevant documentation for such vessels. Using a broker is also a good idea to protect yourself.

4) Do a Search of the Numbers

Once you’ve verified the documents and inspected the boat, search online and with local authorities to see if the HIN, registration, and serial numbers show up as stolen.

There are many options available; however, expect to pay a small fee.

If the numbers come back as stolen, alert local authorities and do not confront the seller.

5) Avoid Prices that are “Too Good to be True.”

Motivated sellers may have a good price, but it will still be within the boat’s fair market value.

Look up the boat on a site like NADA to find the fair market value.

If the price is significantly lower, consider passing on the boat.

6) Check for Personal Items in the Boat

This may seem like a small thing, but boat owners stow all sorts of personal belongings on their boats.

Even if the boat has been made ready to sell, some of these items will be present. Open storage areas and look for life jackets, water toys, electronics, random coins, and safety gear.

Remember that thieves will strip anything valuable and sell it; reputable sellers normally leave things aboard until after the sale.

7) Check the Trailer

If you are looking at a used boat with a trailer, check it over just like the hull.

Most trailers have a plate permanently affixed near the tongue with information like the Vehicle Identification Number(VIN), date of manufacture, and max weight.

You can look up the VIN, but this can be unreliable as most folks have no idea about their trailer numbers and, therefore, won’t have it available to report if stolen.

One clue to look for is the date of manufacture. Generally, boats and hulls are sold together.

This is a subtle clue but an important one.

8) Pay Attention to Detail

As a U.S. Army Jumpmaster, I was taught that a series of minor defects calls into question the entire system’s validity.

The same thing applies here.

If the boat is newly refurbished in any way, question why. If you find several small discrepancies, then assume there is something wrong. Details like the dates of manufacture are important.

If the boat, motor, and trailer look original, they should be manufactured around the same time.

No detail is too small or unimportant.  You are building a picture of the boat’s situation, and you need every bit of information you can find.

9) Avoid Boats that Have Been Owned Less Than a Year

Quick turnover may be appropriate for sellers who flip boats or were unhappy with their boat features, but, in general, this is a cause for concern.

10) Trust Your Gut

If you notice any issues previously mentioned or just have a negative feeling, then walk away from the deal.

If you feel the seller seems dodgy or disreputable, then trust that feeling.

Ask the seller why they are selling and get to know them a little bit. Most people are open and honest about what is going on.

If the seller avoids questions or redirects the conversation, consider that a bad sign.

11) Buy From a Dealer or Use a Broker

If you want to avoid individual sellers, then go to a reputable dealer or broker.

Dealers and brokers have no incentive to sell stolen goods, potentially damaging their reputation or landing them in legal trouble. They will ensure that everything is on the up and up.

The downside is that they will know the value of what they are selling, and you are less likely to get the best price.


Now you are armed with the ins and out of how to avoid buying a stolen boat or getting scammed.

While criminals become savvier every day, the information outlined here will help you avoid buying a stolen boat and landing in hot water.

Keep abreast of the local crime trends when looking for a boat, pay attention to detail, and trust your gut and you will avoid getting taken by thieves and scammers.

As always, have pleasant travels, calm winds, and fair seas.

Be safe and watch out for your fellow boaters!

Was this article helpful? Like Dislike

Click to share...

Did you find wrong information or was something missing?
We would love to hear your thoughts! (PS: We read ALL feedback)