While browsing through Facebook one day in 2017, a widow from Kentucky clicked on a series of links that led her to a signup form about buying silver. One of those Facebook pages, she told Quartz, appeared to be associated with Fox News.
“I didn’t really think anything about it or anything. It was asking if you wanted more information,” said Cheryl, 71, who requested we not use her last name.
Within 24 hours, Cheryl got a phone call from a representative of a company called Chase Metals. She said that right away, the caller launched into a conversation about which Fox News programs she watches. Then he mentioned that he had seen that she was interested in precious metals. Her interest at the time was casual, but the salesman was persistent, calling her again and again. They talked over several days, she said. He’d ask about her family, learning that the retired nurse was raising two of her grandchildren on her own.
According to Cheryl, in order to convince her to invest in silver, the salesman talked about how Donald Trump’s policies would devalue the dollar and how she’d lose money if a recession hit. He spoke about a supposed law that would enable lawmakers to confiscate Americans’ savings. His pitch, she said, was “extremely high pressure.”
Eventually she agreed and, at the direction of the salesman, she said, she transferred $83,000 of her retirement savings into a self-directed Individual Retirement Account (IRA), a special kind of IRA that allows a broader range of investments, including precious metals. Then, with the salesman’s help, her $83,000 was used to purchase silver coins from Chase Metals to be held in the IRA. Separately, she bought $60,000 worth of coins that she had delivered directly to her home.
Quartz obtained Cheryl’s complaint about the company to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau through a Freedom of Information Act request, and interviewed her by phone.
When she checked her IRA balance online, she said, it turned out that instead of the $83,000 she expected to have, her holdings were worth less than a third of that. That’s because the price of the coins she purchased was far higher than the value of the precious metal they contained.
She said she eventually recovered much of her IRA investment, but still lost more than $25,000. To have money to live on, she started selling the silver coins she had at home back to Chase Metals, but at prices lower than what she bought them for initially, she said. Now she and her grandchildren live off of her Social Security checks.
Quartz found that Cheryl was one of dozens of elderly Americans who were caught in a web of companies, websites, Facebook pages, Facebook advertisements, and traditional ads apparently involved in selling overpriced metals to older conservatives. The effort was supercharged by Facebook’s advertising tools—which were used to purchase at least 45 million ad impressions for at least $3 million.
Chase Metals, a sister brand called Metals.com, and their corporate parent, called TMTE, have drawn scrutiny from state regulators across the US, who accuse them variously of fraud or illegally offering investment advice. The company appears to have begun using the Metals.com name about two years ago and has mostly dropped the Chase Metals name. Quartz’s investigation draws from interviews, video recordings, customers’ documents, corporate filings, public records, crowdsourced Facebook ad data, and internal documents from Metals.com.
Numerous seniors ensnared by Metals.com and Chase Metals said they lost significant chunks of their life savings in an instant. The thousands of supposedly collectible gold and silver coins they bought turned out to include a markup as high as 200% from the value of the metal they contained.
On the other end of Cheryl’s phone calls was what two people familiar with the company, including a former salesperson, described as a boiler-room-style sales operation run out of an office in Beverly Hills. According to interviews and internal chats reviewed by Quartz, its employees were racing to become millionaires by winning the trust of politically conservative, older Americans.
Two former business associates independently described Metals.com’s morning meetings, led by company leader Lucas Asher, a philosophizing Instagram personality and indie-rock musician, as something out of The Wolf of Wall Street, the Martin Scorsese movie about one of the 1990s’ most-infamous, money-hungry stock scammers. In internal messages, Metals.com employees traded comments about their future Rolexes and memes of a man making a snow-angel in dollar bills.
But since a Texas financial firm raised concerns about the possible exploitation of an elderly client, authorities in at least five states have taken action.
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Several state securities agencies have accused Metals.com, Chase Metals, or TMTE of offering investment advice without being registered, and thus not being legally allowed to do so. Texas’s State Securities Commissioner found that Metals.com had acted as an unregistered investment adviser in Texas in violation of state law. Kentucky alleged that the company “perpetrated misrepresentations and/or omissions of material fact, which would constitute fraud or deceit upon a person.” Georgia said Metals.com engaged in an “illegal advisory scheme” in a cease-and-desist order. Alabama’s Securities Commission also alleges that several representatives of the company engaged in “dishonest and unethical behavior” by failing to disclose that the representatives were compensated for advising clients to sell their securities and buy precious metals. The Kentucky, Georgia, and Alabama actions are still pending.
A Metals.com spokesperson disputed just about every one of Quartz’s findings; he said the company does not give financial advice, and characterized the state matters as having been “dropped,” or, later, that the still-open state matters were “all being settled.” In fact, the Texas order concluded that Metals.com had broken the law.
A statement from the company said that it “takes an honest approach with its customers.”
Metals.com’s pitch was not novel—the gold industry is notorious for fear-based appeals, and the company’s own tactics echo those of the gold seller Goldline International, brought to light earlier this decade. Goldline, also accused of inflating its prices, had to refund its customers $4.5 million in a court settlement.
But with Facebook’s powerful ad-targeting capabilities, today’s precious-metals schemes can more precisely find their victims, while keeping politically-themed pitches from everyone else.
Quartz spoke to five customers of Metals.com (or Chase Metals) who lost large portions of their savings. We also reviewed regulatory documents from various states that mention more than 130 Metals.com and Chase Metals customers and describe what happened to some of them in detail. Their stories were remarkably similar: They were politically conservative, retired, and usually had little or no experience investing in precious metals. They felt deceived, and a handful fought to get their money back by filing complaints with organizations such as the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, and review websites like Ripoff Report.
At least one sued the company for fraud. Stephen Matteo, a 73-year-old in Hawaii, retired in April 2017 after a career as a United Airlines aircraft mechanic. Just three months later, his wife died. Soon after, he says, he heard an ad for Chase Metals on conservative talk radio. He called the company, and a salesman started a conversation about politics. He heard a similar pitch to the one Cheryl recalled: that the economy was in bad shape and that silver and gold were a safe investment. The company denied Matteo’s claims.
“I just keep thinking back to that time when I did that or what made me do that. I don’t know. I couldn’t sleep. I was a mess,” he said, told Quartz.
Initially Matteo wanted to invest only a portion of his savings, but the salesperson, who told Matteo his name was Luke McCain, convinced him to put almost all of his money, $462,000, into silver, mostly in the form of coins. When he received account statements from his self-directed IRA showing his holdings were worth far less, he said he sold the coins and silver bars elsewhere and ended up retrieving only $158,000. He had hoped to pay his son’s tuition, so his son could follow in his footsteps and become an aircraft mechanic, but with his savings gone, he couldn’t afford it. Matteo sued the company; the case was settled confidentially in October.
Silver and gold bullion are metals sold in bulk. Sometimes bullion is sold as ingots or bars and sometimes as coins. Bullion coins contain gold or silver in a specific quantity, and their retail price is closely related to the value of the metals inside, often with a small markup. Bullion, including bullion coins, can be a part of a legitimate investment strategy.
But the value of collectible coins, sometimes called numismatic coins, depends on rarity and beauty. They are a far more risky bet. If a coin isn’t especially rare or desirable, its worth really boils down to its “melt value”—the value of the metal inside. The Federal Trade Commission’s number-one tip to avoid getting scammed while investing in collectible coins or bullion is to “Ask for the coin’s melt value.”
The coins that precious metals retailers often sell are “gold bullion coins with a fancy wrapper and name and serial numbers,” said Adam Radinsky, Santa Monica’s chief deputy city attorney, who investigated Goldline. “These coins are not worth much, if anything, beyond bullion,” he said. “But they can be touted as if they are.”
Invoices show that Chase Metals sold Matteo 8,050 Polar Bear & Cub coins, each of which contained 1.5 ounces of silver. These are bullion coins made by the Royal Canadian Mint and contain metal that, melted down, would’ve been worth about $26 at the time. Another company offered the coin online for $33 that same month. (Today they’re about $30, depending on how many you buy.) Chase Metals charged Matteo $56 each, a markup of about 115% above the melt value.
The Metals.com spokesperson denied that the melt value of the coins was relevant, citing higher prices charged by government mints for individual coins.
One Missouri woman bought 7,333 Polar Bear coins from Metals.com, which are smaller than the Polar Bear & Cub coins, each containing half an ounce of silver, according to an invoice reviewed by Quartz that was obtained by the Missouri attorney general’s office. She was charged about $26, the invoice says, for coins that contained less than $9 worth of silver. The markup on her coins relative to their melt value was 219%.
It would be extremely difficult for investors who bought the coins at such markups to recoup their losses. “Your yield moving forward has to be astronomical just to get to where you were the day before you made the investment,” Joe Rotunda, enforcement director at the Texas State Securities Board, told Quartz.
Radinsky says “there’s a whole lot of games being played with valuation” in the precious metals industry.
Several Metals.com and Chase Metals customers said they were verbally promised the ability to sell back their coins to the company at any time (a version of a contract on Metals.com’s website said otherwise, however). And some states require precious metals companies to allow customers to undo their transactions within a few days if they have second thoughts.
A former employee of Chase Metals says in a lawsuit regarding alleged wage theft that when clients would call to ask for refunds, the company would “instruct him to refuse to return those clients’ money.” (The company denied this in court filings; the company had sued the employee first, alleging he took customer information to a new job.)
“I saw daily, every single day, [sales]people dodging their calls,” a former Metals.com salesperson told Quartz. “Where’s my money? Where’s Luke McCain? He’s not picking up the phone!’” they’d say.
Finding targets on Facebook
Metals.com knew who its “prime targets” were, the former salesperson said: “deep conservatives” who might be retired.
“These people believe the dollar could collapse tomorrow, people with a deep-seated distrust for government, the elite, Wall Street, the entire system,” said the former saleperson, who asked to remain anonymous fearing retaliation by the company.
The elderly might be especially susceptible to the pitch—particularly those who have large parts of their savings in the stock market. Gold seemingly offers stability, said James Ledbetter, author of the book One Nation Under Gold.
Just like a diaper company can pick from Facebook’s targeting options to show its ads to parents, whoever purchased Metals.com’s ads could choose very specific groups of people.
Quartz found a large network of Facebook ads with various connections to Metals.com. According to the “Why am I seeing this” information given to people who saw the ads, those ads were designed to reach people over 59 years old whom Facebook had classified, based on their tracked web browsing history, as “very conservative” or “interested in” Fox News personality Sean Hannity or other conservative media figures.
Gold sellers advertise all over conservative media. Yet Facebook enhances the effectiveness of advertising on its platform with its suite of powerful, proprietary tools unavailable on any other medium.
When a Facebook user clicked on certain Metals.com-affiliated ads, many of which didn’t mention Metals.com, like one ad from “Fox News Insider Reports,” they would be taken to a website with a URL such as FoxInsiders.com.co. The web page urged them to “Call NOW” while a countdown timer created a false sense of urgency, over a line that read “Offer Only Valid For Next 15 Minutes.”
An image on the FoxInsiders.com.co website contained digital metadata that listed its author as “Chase Metals.”
Other ads seemed designed to mislead viewers about who was behind them. Some ads claimed an affiliation with Fox News, like those with the advertiser’s name listed as “Fox News Viewers.” The Fox News Viewers ad linked to FoxBusiness.com.co. A former business associate of Asher’s said that Asher had told him about purchasing the website.
A Fox News spokesperson told Quartz that “Fox News has never had a relationship with Metals.com or any of its associated aliases, and we plan to further explore our legal options regarding this matter.”
Sometimes the Facebook page that ran the ad had a name that sounded like is was part of the government, such as the “US Retirement Bureau” or “Republican House Committee.”
Here are two examples of ads affiliated with Metals.com warning of a supposed impending “account freeze.”
Facebook approved every one of these ads—an opaque step that sometimes involves humans and sometimes artificial intelligence algorithms.
“These kinds of deceptive ads have no place on Facebook,” Facebook’s director of product management Rob Leathern told Quartz in an emailed statement. “Over the past year we have removed pages and their associated ad accounts, but the people behind these ads continue to intentionally break our rules,” he said.
Facebook didn’t respond to specific questions about why these ads—after many months and millions of dollars spent—weren’t caught earlier. As recently as last week, according to Facebook’s ad library, Facebook was still serving ads that linked to a website that listed a phone number that, when called by Quartz, was answered by someone who said they worked at Metals.com.
Facebook specifically cited its rules that ads “must not promote products, services, schemes or offers using deceptive or misleading practices, including those meant to scam people out of money or personal information.”
Facebook accepted at least $3 million, and likely much more, for ads affiliated with Metals.com‚ according to a Quartz analysis of statistics published by Facebook. The social network displayed the ads tens of millions of times over at least 21 months, despite Facebook’s claim of keeping a close eye on its powerful political advertising tools after they were used by Russian operatives in the 2016 election. The ads under the “Webinar Technologies” name were listed as the 18th-largest political advertiser on Facebook a few days after election day in the US in November 2018.
Facebook’s enforcement system did belatedly ban some of the pages and accounts associated with these ads, and Facebook’s defenses were quickly breached. For instance, though ads attributed to “Agency Consulting LLC” were taken down, Facebook approved ads that said they were paid for by “TheAgencyConsulting LLC.” Ads from at least nine distinct Facebook pages all said “FREE Retirement Newscast! Discover the Little-Known Retirement Savings ‘Kill Switch’” and were approved again and again through March 2019—even after some of the pages were deleted in the fall of 2018.
“The people behind these violating ads are constantly adapting to get around our systems, which is why we continue to improve,” said Leathern, of Facebook.
In a recent paper, law professor Roger Allan Ford says “data scams” are hard to stop, writing that “the lines between scammer and legitimate advertiser can be blurry, especially when that decision must be made by an uninterested company with little reason to investigate the facts.”
The Metals.com response
Quartz had a lengthy conversation with a Metals.com spokesperson, who said his name was David Rubenstein. Quartz was not able to confirm that anyone by the name of David Rubenstein works for Metals.com. Two people who know Metals.com company leader Lucas Asher and heard recordings of part of the conversation said, independently, that the voice sounded highly similar to Asher’s. A third person was initially uncertain, but later said he thought the voice was Asher’s. Asked directly via email about whether we had been speaking to him, Asher did not respond.
The spokesperson pushed back against several of Quartz’s findings. For one, he said that Metals.com does not sell investments. “We’re a retail product organization, so we’re in the same category as any retail product organization that sells a retail product,” Rubenstein said.
Metals.com’s own website included a page that says “Our wide selection of silver and gold on metals.com is one of many reasons why we are the best online site for metal investments.” Customers of Metals.com and Chase Metals characterized their purchases as investments in interviews with Quartz.
Metals.com’s average sale to customers in Texas, Colorado, and Georgia was around $134,000, according to regulators in those states. Various state securities regulators said the company offered investment advice, and, in Kentucky, that it “facilitated the sale of securities.”
“We don’t give any financial advice,” the spokesperson also said. “If someone allegedly did, they’d be swiftly terminated.”
The state allegations were “centralized around a rogue actor,” he said, “who’s been terminated.” A company statement emailed to Quartz noted that Texas “found only a single instance in which a rogue Metals.com employee acted in contravention of Metals.com’s compliance policies.”
Rubenstein didn’t respond to Quartz’s questions about whether the 10 other workers named in state actions were still employed by the firm.
Asked about “Conservative Republican Association” Facebook ad which, if clicked, led directly to Metals.com, Rubenstein said that “a significant amount of our business is liberals and Democrats” and added, “We sell to any belief system, any party.”
Rubenstein said that Metals.com didn’t run any Facebook ads, but rather bought leads from third-party companies. “We just purchased leads on an invoice basis from third-party agencies and we don’t run the third-party agencies,” he said. “They run lead generation campaigns and we don’t run their businesses for them.”
Metals.com didn’t provide the names of those third-party agencies when asked.
Asher said in an email that “I do not purchase or manage any Facebook ads” for Metals.com.
Rubenstein said, “We don’t run those campaigns. Just because someone takes our publicly available privacy links and they’re an affiliate or consultant, that doesn’t make it our ad.”
A familiar scheme
Metals.com’s pitch follows a familiar pattern in the history of the American gold industry. In the 1970s and ’80s, ads for precious metals appeared in conservative and business publications. That gold is a safe investment in the event of an economic downturn has timeless appeal. “This pitch has been around for at least a half a century. It doesn’t change very much in its particulars,” said Ledbetter.
“If you watched Fox for any length of time during the Obama years, there were these constant predictions of a financial apocalypse due to increasing debt and that the only way to protect yourself from this coming crisis is to buy gold,” Ledbetter said.
In the past decade and a half, the city of Santa Monica, the state of Missouri, and then-New York congressman Anthony Weiner each investigated one company called Goldline International. Weiner’s findings describe a strategy akin to Metals.com’s, with Goldline allegedly inflating the value of coins an average of 90% above the coins’ melt value and representatives allegedly acting as unregistered investment advisers. Goldline, too, focused on conservative politics. Right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck vouched for Goldline so often in ads on his program that he became the de facto public face of the company.
In 2014, a US Senate committee found that in 34 federal cases more than 9,000 victims had lost at least $300 million to precious-metals scams, though it didn’t name which ones specifically.
What was primarily done over the phone and through the mail in the past now benefits from the reach of the internet. Technology is a “very significant factor” in financial abuse of the elderly in Texas, Rotunda said, especially as older Americans adopt social media accounts and smartphones. Pew Research Center data from 2019 shows that 40% of those older than 74 have smartphones, and over the past few years the number of Facebook users among this group has doubled.
This group is also significantly less tech-savvy and internet-literate—seniors are three times more likely to share fake news than younger people. For any potential scammers, it’s no longer just chasing down leads from a boiler room, Rotunda said. They can “use this technology to reach a large number of potential victims at a very low cost.”
That group of consumers can be hard to protect as well, Radinsky says, because some don’t understand they’ve been scammed. Or, “some people understand they’ve been scammed, and then they’re terrified that their adult children are going to try to clamp down on their liberties. So they’re embarrassed. They don’t want to come forward and they don’t want to talk about it.”
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