Almost by accident, I came across news of a really cool program. A consumer protection service – not unlike that handled by the Better Business Bureau for everyday goods – was being offered to marine consumers, protecting their rights when dealing with everything from shady boat retailers to faulty battery chargers. Wishing it was offered to me, I was surprised to learn that it was.

BoatUS, the same company that I use to insure my boat, has been offering consumer protection services since its inception in the mid 1970s. Once little more than a scare tactic trying to help, the company’s gigantic member base of over 650,000 consumers now carries significant clout, everywhere from industry trade organizations to Washington.

To back up a bit, BoatUS has experienced tremendous growth recently thanks to improved services and a new partnership with Geico Insurance. With a massive, growing member base comes a responsibility to look out for their membership and alert consumers to potential pitfalls. The BoatUS magazine, also rising in popularity despite a trend away from print publications, fills this role with regular reports on the pros and cons of common marine services and products.

One example: Several years ago, the Consumer Protection Division received a number of complaints regarding corrosion on the new Yamaha 225. Their group met with Yamaha to discuss, reported on the issue and offered consumers a legitimate way to easily resolve any problems. The result was a win for consumers, as well as for Yamaha’s PR department.

Part of the BoatUS secret is its complaint department. When contacted by a consumer feeling slighted, it’s the consumer protection administrator’s purpose to find a solution. “Often, we just have to guide people to decide what they want as a resolution” noted BoatUS Magazine associate editor and former director of consumer protection Charles Fort. “Sometimes we just show them how to write a letter.”

BoatUS handles every legitimate complaint, one at a time. As leaders of the boat consumer community, BoatUS works in the trenches to represent its member base, every day. There, it serves as a liaison between the industry and its consumers.

“The manufacturers know who we are,” Fort added. “Sometimes, it’s just knowing the right people to talk to. We see them, we know them, we go to boat shows and see them at meetings.

“When (consumers) don’t get what they want, we’re happy to step in. When we write a letter, oftentimes it gets a second look”

Early on, Fort informed me, the consumer protection service offered by BoatUS served primarily as a confrontational strong-arm. Today, however, the gigantic member base helps the boat industry work behind the scenes to resolve problems before they get out of hand. In essence, BoatUS operates a branch of R&D.

Even more impressive is the company’s presence in resolving major industry issues. In fact, National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) members are required to participate in a panel to resolve any major consumer issues, in which the BoatUS Consumer Protection Division is included.

Nowadays, the goal of the group is “to work with the industry, and also highlight the good side,” according to Fort.

Another example of interest: A few years ago, consumers were complaining that renewal of Coast Guard paperwork was costing far more from private websites than was listed by the government. Through investigative work, the BoatUS Consumer Protection Division determined that these third-party sites were doing all they could to match the overall look of official webpages, then back-door unknowing applicants with additional fees. Through continued pressure – and publication in its magazine and online – BoatUS was able to oust the imitators.

In addition to playing consumer advocate, BoatUS has compiled a complaint database of over 12,000 entries, where consumers can check up on services in question. “We don’t rate or test,” Fort emphasized, “(we) just put the facts online and let people decide for themselves.”

BoatUS continues to help marine consumers in dozens of ways. It even employs a full-time lobbyist in Washington to aid in environmental issues and the rights for those enjoying the water.

However, in the end, “one of the things we do is to educate members how to be better consumers,” Fort adds. “We get a lot of calls because somebody made a mistake. And we’re willing to go to bat for anybody, on any boat-related product or service.”

All for a $24 membership. It’s nice to know someone’s got our backs.

(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)