Every year vessel owners must renew documentation with the U.S. Coast Guard with the boat’s name, ownership, tonnage, home port and other basic criteria. It costs $26 — unless you get scammed by a private provider that charges three times as much.

Fishing groups are warning that is the case with an online company called U.S. Vessel Documentation.

Fisherman Norm Hughes of Haines, Alaska, received a letter saying he needed to renew his documentation at a website called and he paid $150 for a two year renewal. Then he learned it was a legal scam.

The outfit is sending misleading letters to boat owners across the country, said Steve Ramp, a Coast Guard spokesman in Sitka.

“This company is making themselves look very close to an official letter from the Coast Guard when they’re not,” Ramp said. "They are not doing anything illegal. They are offering a service to the owners of documented vessels and they are performing that service.”

U.S. Vessel Documentation spokesman Zachary Johnson called any mix ups "regrettable.”

“We don’t have the same logos. We have a completely unique and trademarked logo. We aren’t on a government URL or anything like that,” he told KHNS in Haines.

Johnson said a disclaimer in small print at the bottom of the company website states that it is a private service, and it also is specified in the terms customers agree to when renewing their registration. He would not say why the company charges three times as much as the Coast Guard or reveal the number of complaints they’ve received.

They extend to recreational fishermen.

“We are actively trying to get the company to change its policies to make it more transparent. These third party companies are permitted to do this but the issue we have is they tend to look like they are official Coast Guard website and letters,” said Charles Fort, director of consumer protection at the U.S. Boat Owners Association.

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Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak, Alaska-based fisheries journalist. Click here to send her an email.

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