Part two of the series, Mining for Silver on Facebook
Lucas Asher says in a YouTube video that he’s an investor in tech world darlings like Spotify and Palantir. He’s founded a few startups of his own, including a music-sharing app called Revo. He admires Silicon Valley visionary billionaires like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
But he’s also the force behind a very different kind of company, Metals.com, according to former business associates, court documents, and internal company communications. Those sources say Metals.com is a boiler-room-style operation, akin to the one depicted in the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street, about one of the 1990s’ most infamous scammers, Jordan Belfort. The Beverly Hills-based Metals.com sells overpriced gold and silver coins to seniors, using a high-pressure pitch about impending economic doom. It’s an old-school scheme, bolstered by 21st-century methods: an elaborate system of Facebook ads that baited conservative retirees.
Asher is one of the two principals of Metals.com. The other is CEO Simon Batashvili, but he’s more of a family guy focused on the business side of the operation, say former business associates. (Batashvili did not respond to a request for comment.)
Asher is a different story, according to his social media accounts, interviews, and internal messages and videos reviewed by Quartz. He’s an indie rock musician and a philosophizing, verified Instagrammer—alongside his day job leading Metals.com’s team of salespeople.
Asher favors red leather jackets worn over all-black outfits, accessorizing with sparkly shoes, like a pair of gold, studded smoking slippers—a uniform that underscores the rockstar vibe he strove for, according to former business associates. Three former business associates spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared retaliation. Asher’s indie band Faulkner recorded a song called “NY Anthem” with the rapper RZA, of Wu-Tang Clan fame. In it Asher sings about taking over the world.
Asher has more than 233,000 followers on Instagram, where he posts a mix of typical influencer fare, like sunsets and exotic locales, side-by-side with portraits of him in front of a raging fire. One, in which he wields a military-style weapon, is captioned: “Our thoughts, if directed and aligned, in the right frequency, are like this RPG missile. 🚀” In another photo, he perches on a luxury sports car, with a caption saying: “Choosing money over consciousness is like choosing dirt over gold.”
Asher’s online philosophical musings often refer to the “Omertà Cortex,” which its website says is a “code of consciousness,” and a group of “consciousness pirates,” including him and model and influencer Jay Alvarrez. (There is no indication that Alvarrez has any affiliation with Metals.com.) Omertà is the mafia’s code of silence. “Omertà Cortex” is also the title of a video series in which the pair rides two scuba-scooter-powered, faux giant squids in Bora Bora, ostensibly to save coral reefs.
It seems Asher aspires to be a Silicon Valley-style serial founder. Aside from Metals.com, he’s founded Revo and Best New, a music discovery site for influencers. From 2012 to 2016, he was listed as the owner of a website for “Contra Cartel,” which sold “contrabands,” leather bracelets with a music-filled USB drive for a clasp; the only band whose music was listed as available for the bracelets was Faulkner, Asher’s band. And Asher and Batashvili are the principals of Tower Equity, a self-described private equity firm that says it has holdings in companies including Palantir, Slack, Spotify, and SpaceX, along with Metals.com.
Although it seems less a buzzy startup and more of a traditional sales operation, according to the company’s spokesperson Metals.com fits in with the other ventures. “We’re not really a gold and silver company, we’re a technology company,” said the spokesperson, who said his name was David Rubenstein. He added that Metals.com uses machine learning and A/B testing to determine the best price for the metals.
Before he and Batashvili struck out on their own, Asher spent time as a broker selling gold at the Malibu, California-based International Bullion Exchange, another gold and silver brokerage oriented at retirement accounts, according to court documents. That company sued both men in 2014 for allegedly stealing customer lists to use at their own gold-and-silver brokerage. (That suit and a countersuit alleging fraud and breach of contract were both dismissed.)
A few years earlier, Asher apparently got a taste of the startup life when, as “Luke Thomas,” he co-founded a company called HotSwap.com, a video-based e-commerce site for used cars. The company, which was reportedly backed by investors including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, was written up in several mainstream publications, but after some initial success, it fell apart. (Wozniak did not respond to a request for comment.) Historical web domain registrations for HotSwap.com and other sites, found in the DomainTools’s Iris database, show Asher using the same email address and mailing address with the names Lucas Asher, Luke Erb, and Luke Thomas.
Besides those Lukes, the International Bullion Exchange lawsuit listed other aliases Asher had purportedly used, including Luke Emmanuel, Luke Francis, Michael Walker, and Henry Davis.
Some of Metals.com’s staff also used pseudonyms, according to former business associates. Customer Stephen Matteo spoke with a salesman who said his name was Luke McCain. Customer Richard Craighead spoke with a salesman who gave his name as Deric Scott. In fact, both were the same man, Deric Ned. That’s according to a former salesperson and a single email reviewed by Quartz that says it was sent by both Deric Scott and Luke McCain, and also lists Deric Ned’s email address. Ned didn’t respond to requests for comment left at the Metals.com office and sent to him via email and text message.
In a 2016 court filing, Chase Metals (the prior name of Metals.com’s parent company) acknowledged that a salesman other than Deric Ned also used a fake last name in the course of his work for Chase Metals.
“Everyone uses their real name,” said a spokesperson for the company, who said his name was David Rubenstein. Quartz was not able to confirm that a person named David Rubenstein works for the company. When three people who had worked with Asher listened to a recording of Rubenstein, all three said Rubenstein sounded like Asher. Asher didn’t reply to a direct question about this.
In internal Telegram messages between several dozen employees obtained by Quartz, Asher was the sales team’s pep-talk guy. He posted, for example, a meme with a quote from the millionaire sales trainer and real-estate mogul Grant Cardone, “There is no shortage of money on Planet Earth; Only a shortage of people really going for it,” over a background of $50 and $100 bills. From himself, Asher added: “There is no shortage of money on this planet; There is a shortage of courage; Let’s crush every obstacle!”
In the mornings, there’d be meetings about how to approach the sales work. “Think Wolf of Wall Street. These meetings are just like that except without the coke and hookers,” a former salesperson said. There’d be yelling, a lot of energy and excitement, according to two former business associates. (Rubenstein said that at 9 am, every morning, the company has a “compliance meeting.”)
“All they care about is money. They even will say that’s all they care about,” the former salesperson said.
The Telegram messages reflect this. One employee even shared a meme from The Wolf of Wall Street in which Leonardo DiCaprio, as Belfort, is throwing money into the air. There is talk of red Ferraris, of “intercepting money,” and quotes from Glengarry Glen Ross, another movie that is an indictment of predatory sales tactics.
One employee, after Asher and Batashvili praised the sales team in the chat, quipped “All I see is 💰💰💰.”
As an incentive, the office had “cash grabs,” which involved a version of a machine, known from TV game shows, that blows bills around for contestants to grab; a salesperson who met special sales targets would stick their hand inside Metals.com’s miniature device to grab as many bills as possible. These “grabs” are referred to in the Telegram messages, and the former salesperson said the cash grab machine dispensed real money, often $100 bills.
Rubenstein, the spokesperson, acknowledged that the machine existed, but said that it didn’t contain real cash.
It’s not entirely clear how much actual cash the company brings in. But there’s a hint. Metals.com grossed $58 million from July 2017 to July 2018, according to a lawsuit from the former vice president of sales, who said he was supposed to be paid a bonus based on the company’s gross revenue. Asked directly about the $58 million figure, Rubenstein didn’t dispute it, instead saying the former VP had no knowledge of the company’s gross revenue; Metals.com denied everything claimed in the lawsuit, which is still ongoing.
Asher pushed his salespeople to start their calls with a political narrative, according to the former salesperson. It was important to get potential investors to connect with and trust them. Customers had to be conservative, with little faith in the government or the economy. “If someone says they’re liberal or they don’t like Hannity, you just hang up,” said the former salesperson.
Successful sales approaches were written down and circulated among Metals.com salespeople, the former salesperson said. One such script shown to Quartz began, “I’m part of a conservative team… we help Fox News / Hannity / Limbaugh / Levin.” (A Fox News spokesperson said it has no affiliation with Metals.com, and that the use of the channel’s name was unauthorized.) Another says: “I don’t know what your religious beliefs are, but I’m Christian. Did you know that there are 700 references to gold and silver in the bible.”
While the wording in the scripts is corroborated by other documents and Quartz’s own phone calls to Metals.com, the documents themselves have not been independently authenticated.
Sales pitches were based on frightening their targets, the former salesperson said. “Fear sells.” A common line in the phone calls would be: “Do you think Wall Street [has] your best interest at heart?”
To reinforce the pitch, salespeople emailed customers links to articles cherrypicked from credible news sources, such as MarketWatch or CNBC, suggesting doom-and-gloom perspectives that fit the given narrative.
“I personally am not an advocate of the ‘bear market is coming’ pitch,” Asher posted in the Telegram chat. “If a prospect disagrees with you it’s not really a winnable narrative (because nobody knows). Stick with Jim Rickards [an advocate for investing in gold], Debt Bomb, Chinese Kill Switch, Illegal immigration, DEEP STATE, ICE-9, fedcoin narrative because the President of the United States is your source and it’s proven to move capital,” he writes, referring to obscure right-wing financial theories about a collapse in the value of US currency.
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Under the header of “Deep State has been hard at work,” another written script described the “Fed Coin” as a supposed plan in which “Feds want you to turn in your dollars for crypto currency.” (No such plans are known to exist.) The scripts also mention scenarios of an attack on the US with an electromagnetic pulse or war with North Korea.
Rubenstein said political narratives were not an important part of Metals.com’s sales process. “I would say macroeconomic narratives are a big concern people have right now. Political narratives are not that important.”
Asher even used a news piece from the outlet France24 about solar outbursts to strengthen the pitch. “Narratives everywhere…NASA is concerned about the power grid being wiped out and causing 2 trillion in damages per year,” he said in the Telegram chat.
In addition to being conservative, the targets had to be close to retirement, the former salesperson said. The idea was to play on fears of the economy crashing suddenly, like it did in 2008. (Rubenstein maintains the company sells to all ages.)
A particularly effective image, the former salesperson said, was one that painted their immediate future in the event of such a collapse, bagging groceries at their local stores for income.
“I think about it daily, what I was part of, and what I was part of doing to people,” the former salesperson said. “It’s everything these people had. I’m putting people in an early grave.”
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