A national task force has been formed to investigate a rash of boat engine and electronics thefts at dealerships and marinas across the country that has resulted in millions of dollars of equipment being stolen.
A group of sophisticated thieves is targeting engines and electronics, cutting fences at night and disabling security cameras before making off with engines and navigational units, said Dan Rutherford, director of claims and risk management for the Maritime Program Group, an insurer of boat dealerships.
“They’re professional, they’re fast, they know what they’re doing, they get in and they get out,” Rutherford, who is serving on the task force with local law enforcement agencies and the FBI, told Trade Only Today. “Ordinary fences aren’t stopping them.”
What began in Florida started to spread north along the East Coast, and most recently dealerships in Texas and upstate New York were hit in a similar fashion, Rutherford said.
Captain Max King’s Marine in Virginia had six 600-pound engines stolen in February.
“These people knew what they were doing. They cut two holes in the fence that I think were for an escape route for if they got caught,” owner Max King told the Virginian-Pilot.
Authorities in St. Johns County, Fla., told a local TV station that boat engines were being stolen “at an alarming rate.”
The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office told News 4 Jax that last year there were 27 incidents in which at least one motor was stolen. This year there have been 17, and it's happening all over the county.
In May, thieves targeted a Minnesota dealership, according to a local ABC affiliate.
What had been confined to Florida and then moved to the I-95 corridor seems to be spreading across the country, Rutherford said.
“I don’t really think it’s just an East Coast phenomenon anymore,” he said. “With these outboards ranging from $18,000 to upwards of $30,000 apiece, they’re being targeted as a high-value item for theft. Right now, we believe they’re going into containers or trucks and being shipped out of the country. The other thing being stolen is … high-value navigational units. So we don’t know what the reasoning is behind it, but we have a task force of law enforcement officers up and down the East Coast working, with federal cooperation. But the word needs to really be spread to future victims to try to keep them being future victims.”
Rutherford said that in most of the thefts someone will pose as a shopper a day or two beforehand to case the dealership.
“In one case, the day before the facility was hit, the suspect gained entry into the yard by posing as someone selling a miracle cleaner for fiberglass,” Rutherford said.
“Normal security measures are no challenge to this group,” he said. “They cut through chain-link fences and avoid security cameras. They wear hoodies and facemasks to obscure their faces. They normally have a team member act as a lookout, and they are very organized and sophisticated, conducting counterintelligence operations. In the period of a few hours they can make off with well over a dozen outboards and navigation units. They are professional, know what they are doing and leave very little damage.”
Rutherford does not have an exact figure for the value of what has been stolen this year. Other insurance companies don’t like to share their loss data and he does not capture the engines stolen from personally owned boats, which is also happening, because in those cases owners have to deal directly with their insurance companies.
Still, he said he conservatively estimates that millions worth have been taken this year alone, and he is urging boat dealers to make sure they’re on the lookout for anything suspicious and that they take additional steps to safeguard their inventory at night, such as installing motion-detection systems, audible alarms and motion-detection lighting.
During past rashes of thefts, investigators understood the purpose, whether the goods were used for human or drug smuggling.
This time they’re perplexed about the motive, Rutherford said.
“I wish I knew why,” he said. “Are they going to be sold? Are they going for smuggling purposes? We just don’t know. But it’s not a bunch of individual random acts. This is, in our estimation, a very coordinated group.”