A friend and fellow angler here in small-town Brunswick, Georgia, where I live, told me a while back that he took his bay boat to the dealership for outboard maintenance. While the vessel was on the lot, thieves stole my friend’s electronics.
Boat thieves. Brunswick, Georgia.
But Brunswick is located off Interstate 95, which apparently screams “easy getaway” to those who would steal electronics, and also outboards and boats. That popular north-south highway ends in Miami, Florida, where some sources say near-epidemic marine theft occurs, although no agency or company can provide statistics. The problem plagues both boat owners and, in the case of electronics, product distributors.
That’s why everyone from individual boaters on Facebook watch groups to the largest electronics companies in the industry want to combat the issue. As an initial step, the National Marine Electronics Association hosted a conference call on January 10 among its member dealers, distributors, manufacturers and a few media. The NMEA followed up with a sit-down conversation at February’s Miami International Boat Show.
Solutions will take time and more discussion, but the group theorized a few options and suggested initial steps, including beefing up installation specs, starting an awareness campaign, and encouraging boaters to register their units, install security systems and insure their boats.
“The way we’re hearing about it is through companies that have or sell security systems. They know when a break-in happens,” says Mark Reedenauer, NMEA executive director, citing sources such as GOST and Siren Marine with regard to consumer thefts. “We’re hearing it on a grass-roots level. Over the past nine months, we’ve really started to see it coming to the front.”
The NMEA hears from its own industry members when commercial thefts occur. In most cases, that level of crime is organized, Reedenauer says. Law-enforcement sources believe large quantities of electronics flow illegally to South America.
“This is a hot topic everywhere, and we are actively looking for a solution,” says David Dunn, Garmin’s director of sales and marketing. “This is not an easy problem to solve. If we can build a solution, someone out there will figure out how to bypass it.”
Even BoatUS, which insures thousands of boating anglers across the country, can’t put a finger on the extent of the problem. In fact, BoatUS says, only 50 to 60 percent of recreational-boat owners even have a boat-insurance policy.
Multifunction displays have become the most common targets for theft. These units cost anywhere from about $1,000 to $10,000 or more. With some boats sporting multiple displays, losses mount quickly.
Among consumers, South Florida attorney Bruce Marx has adopted the mantle of champion for the anti-electronics-theft cause. Marx has started two Facebook groups — South Florida Marina & Boat Watch Group and Stop the GPS Thefts! — so victims and interested boaters can help each other. He also opened discussions in December with the Miami City Commission and the police department, hoping to establish a regional marine-theft task force.
For Marx, the cause became personal this past April, when thieves vandalized his boat and stole his electronics. Marx says he has since purchased a vessel-security system, but he’s hoping the electronics industry will investigate either a tracking solution — so a stolen GPS can be monitored and found within the first 48 hours of a theft — or a passcode or unlock-code solution.
Both topics came up in the recent NMEA discussions, and while each is fraught with its own drawbacks — including costs to consumers as well as technology issues — industry leaders remain committed to pursuing a resolution.
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“We want the customer to have a good user experience,” Dunn says. “If there is a passcode, what happens when the customer forgets it? This would amass large amounts of support calls and could oftentimes happen when customer support is not available.”
Boaters can’t yet reset a passcode through their displays, even those units with Wi-Fi capability, because firewalls prevent access to all but a few select Web destinations for downloading updated charts and software.
To track a display, the unit would have to incorporate some form of battery, because once thieves unplug the electronics, power is lost. In addition, the tracking option would have to include some form of subscription service.
“I could go on and on about scenarios,” Dunn says. “We are serious about looking at it and coming up with an acceptable solution. It is just not something that will happen overnight.”
Industry sources told me they hope NMEA members will continue to work together to create a specification for device anti-theft that every manufacturer — even those that make audio equipment and other removable onboard systems — can adopt. Any U.S. solution also has to take into account the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation because products made in America sell into overseas markets.
NMEA’s Reedenauer says the January conference call produced an initial request to include a training-and-installation standard for through-bolting displays and using security screws. “We [at NMEA] are trying to facilitate communication among members,” he says. “We can’t mandate anything or tell any member company how to run their business. We’re not a regulatory agency.”
BoatUS recommends that boaters practice vigilance when scoping out a new marina — Is it lit at night? Can the public access it? — and ask their dealer where he will keep the boat when it’s in for service. Dealers often post signs that they’re not responsible for damage or theft.
Other tips include engraving a name or phone number on the electronics to make yours less appealing than others, keeping an accurate inventory of products and serial numbers, and photographing or videoing everything aboard.
If you can remove your electronics, take them home. If your display is flush-mounted, through-bolt it or use security screws. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to protect yourself,” says Rich Carroll, of BoatUS’s special investigations unit. “If you’re going to hope a third party will protect and indemnify you, that’s not going to happen.”