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read the fine print

Business might get a little tougher for Maritime Documentation Center, that cheesy California outfit that charges triple what the government charges to renew U.S. Coast Guard vessel documentation. 

It’s a dodgy operation that has drawn state and federal investigations and a trail of complaints by customers who say they were tricked by junk mail letters into thinking they were dealing with the Coast Guard instead of a private business. Hey, it works: In a 2016 lawsuit, owner John Soria claimed he was grossing $35,000 a week on renewals and registrations alone.

A federal judge threw a wrench into Soria’s business in December, however, by dismissing his Freedom of Information Act request for the latest list of names and addresses of documented vessel owners. (Coast Guard documentation can be cheaper than state registration and allows you to avoid placing those ugly numbers on your bow.)

Soria apparently got his hands on an unredacted list in May, 2021 off the Coast Guard website, then complained when he discovered the government had since scrubbed personally identifying information from the files. His lawyer argued there was some compelling reason for him to know not just the name, tonnage and home port of more than 370,000 U.S.-documented vessels but how to send the owners his junk-mail pitches as well.

The Coast Guard, in response, said the 2021 release was a mistake. It actually stopped releasing personal information in 2017 after getting complaints from owners about unsolicited mail from companies like Maritime Documentation Center. 

“Vessel owners were often confused by these offers, which they believed were coming directly from the Coast Guard and were upset to learn that they had paid a significantly greater amount of money to a third party than they would have paid if they renewed their documentation directly,” a Coast Guard officer said in a filing with the court. The government cited as precedent a 1984 decision where the owner of a lodge on the Rogue River in Oregon was denied a FOIA request for the names and addresses of everyone who obtained a rafting permit on the river. 

Maritime Documentation Center sends out letters with what looks like an official seal and a QR code preloaded with your boat’s information that fires up a website with a .US URL where you can pay your fees. Read the website carefully enough and you might discover you are paying Soria a hefty markup to process information you could do yourself, but many fail to see the fine print until it’s too late. Compare Marine Documentation Center’s website with the official National Vessel Documentation Center to see how one might be confused.

Soria, a Chino Hills, Calif. marine surveyor, got into the renewal business a few years ago along with his wife, the owner of Luxurious Femme LLC. Since then, he seems to have had serious problems with people trying to horn in on his action. He sued his website designer in 2016 for trying to extort $50,000 from him and starting a copycat business, Boatdocumentation.us, that customers were “in no way shape or form able to differentiate” from his oh-so-above-board Maritime Documentation Center. Then he sued his tax advisor over the same thing, accusing his advisor of stealing “proprietary advertising and SEO strategies” and starting yet another clone, USVesselRegistrar. That case settled. 

Soria didn’t respond to a request for comment placed through his website. Maybe now that he has lost access to a mailing list, he’ll have to go back to surveying boats for a living.