Boat owners fooled by website charging high prices for vessel documentation

Haines fisherman Norm Hughes received two letters telling him to renew his Coast Guard documentation. The one on the left is from the Coast Guard. The one on the right is from a third-party company that charges three times as much. (Emily Files)

This is the time of year when Alaska fishermen make sure they have their paperwork in order so they’re ready to hit the water. But recently, some of those boat owners were targeted by a third-party service that charges much higher rates for Coast Guard certification.

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“I want to go fishing, I want to be done with all this paperwork,” Haines commercial fisherman Norm Hughes said.

Earlier this month, Hughes received a letter in the mail telling him to renew his Coast Guard documentation. It directed him to a website: Hughes went to the website right away and paid $150 for a two-year renewal.

“You know, it’s serious business,” Hughes said. “If you don’t file your Coast Guard papers, they can end your voyage right there.”

But a few days later, he received emails from fishermen’s associations with a warning: this company telling you to renew your registration is not the Coast Guard.

“And I’m like oh is that what I did?” Hughes recalled. “And went and looked and oh yeah, that’s what I did.”

“This company is making themselves look very closely to be an official letter from the Coast Guard when they’re not,” Steve Ramp, with the Coast Guard detachment in Sitka, said.

Ramp said the company, called U.S. Vessel Documentation, is sending letters to boat owners across the country.

The Coast Guard charges $26 for a one-year renewal. The vessel documentation company charges about three times that amount: $75. Ramp said even though it’s misleading, it’s not technically a scam.

“They’re not doing anything illegal,” Ramp said. “They’re offering a service to the owners of documented vessels and they are performing that service.”

Zachary Johnson works for US Vessel Documentation.

“US Vessel Documentation is not the Coast Guard and is not trying to be the Coast Guard,” Johnson said. “And it’s regrettable to hear that people find that to be the case.”

Johnson gave multiple examples of how the company shows it is a private service. One is a disclaimer on the website. The disclaimer is located at the bottom of the webpage in small type. Johnson said it’s also specified in the terms of service customers have to agree to when purchasing their registration renewal.

“We don’t have the same logos or anything,” Johnson said. “We have a completely unique and trademarked logo. We aren’t on a government URL or anything like that.”

It’s not just Alaska fishermen and the Coast Guard here that have raised alarms about the US Vessel Documentation website.

“We are actively trying to get the company to change their policies to make it more transparent,” Charles Fort said. He’s the director of consumer protection at the Boat Owners Association of the United States.

The association represents recreational boaters across the country. Fort said dozens of the association’s members have reported using the service, thinking it was the Coast Guard.

“These third party companies are permitted to do this obviously,” Fort said. “The issue we have is they tend to look like they are US Coast Guard official website and letters.”

But Johnson, with US Vessel Documentation, maintains that it is not deceptive. He did not have details about why the company charges three times the amount of the Coast Guard to renew documentation. He also did not have information on hand about the number of complaints they’ve received.

If US Vessel Documentation does keep track of complaints, one of them would be from Haines fisherman Hughes. He sent an email asking for his money back.

“I sent them a nasty-gram,” Hughes said. “I said ‘I hope you die soon.’”

Then, just to be safe, he renewed his paperwork on the actual Coast Guard website. He said the documentation is too important to entrust with a third party.

Emily Files is a reporter at KHNS in Haines.

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