EASTERN SHORE, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- The U.S. Coast Guard is warning boat owners of a new online scam that can cost them hundreds of dollars: Websites offering documentation renewal services for a fee.
These websites lure boaters with the appearance and convenience of an official government website, but, just because a site looks like the Coast Guard and works like the Coast Guard, that does not mean it’s the Coast Guard, Petty Officer 1st Class Bill Colclough said in a news release.
Boaters using these websites can end up spending three times the standard fee, and Coast Guard boarding officers will not accept their vessel’s documentation as valid.
The Coast Guard said its National Vessel Documentation Center, located in Falling Waters, West Virginia, is the only entity authorized to issue Certificates of Documentation required for vessels engaged in commercial trade and optional for vessels weighing five or more net tons engaged in recreational use and activities.
The documentation center is aware there are commercial entities that offer to manage the certification and renewal process on behalf of vessel owners for a fee, the Coast Guard said, adding it does not endorse any of these companies, and the companies do not operate on behalf of the Coast Guard.
The services they provide are legal, but the certificates issued are not deemed in compliance, it said.
Any fees charged beyond the $26 renewal fee or other agreements offered by such companies are not associated with the certification process, and these companies are not authorized to issue any form of documentation, including travel letters and/or permits that authorize operation of any vessel.
“These are legitimate companies similar to the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) that have satellite offices open on the weekends and after hours. They’ll give you your tags, but it’s going to cost you twice as much because you’re paying for their service,” said Russell Hazlett, commercial fishing vessel examiner for Coast Guard Sector Anchorage in Alaska.
“These companies are not issuing the certificate, but rather, they are the middleman who charges a fee for processing the paperwork on your behalf.”
According to Hazlett, many fishermen in Alaska sign up with a company to handle their annual documentation and end up paying hundreds of dollars. They often realize too late they are not dealing directly with the Coast Guard.
”Just this year alone I have come across probably eight people who have fallen victim to it,” said Hazlett. “I have warned them: When you go to renew your documentation, just be aware there is another company that provides that service.”
Hazlett noted that many third-party websites resemble a Coast Guard website complete with an anchor-themed logo and color scheme that closely matches the Department of Homeland Security seal.
A librarian in Naknek, Alaska, filed for her husband after she received an official-looking letter marked “reinstatement courtesy notice” from a website offering documentation services. The letter even listed the boat’s hull number and looked every bit like an official Coast Guard document. The website bore all the markers for an official domain except one: the non-official site ended in “.us” instead of “.mil.”
“It looked like a Coast Guard site, but when you scrolled all the way to the bottom, the site claimed in the tiniest font they are not affiliated with the U.S. Coast Guard,” said the librarian.
The librarian canceled her credit card and proceeded to dispute the charge. It was when she entered “coast guard renewal scam” in an online search engine that she realized she was not alone. It turns out there are a number of forums online of fishermen in Alaska and across the rest of the country, who share their stories and seek information on how to get their money back from third-party providers.
When it comes time to renew the documentation, remember the Coast Guard website offering documentation uses a .mil domain name. Web domains using .us, .com and .org are not authorized.
For more information on Certificates of Documentation, call the Coast Guard’s NVDC at 800-799-8362 or click here.