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Mining for Silver on Facebook

How Facebook ads supercharged an effort to trick older conservatives out of retirement savings.

Bárbara Abbês for Quartz
GOLD DIGGING

The scare tactics used to sell overpriced silver to older conservatives

Part of our series, Mining for Silver on Facebook

A “sales funnel” featuring misleading and out-of-context claims sought to convince American retirees to trade in their retirement funds for precious metals with a company called Metals.com. The pitch amounted to political disinformation aimed at conservative seniors; Kentucky regulators said the company employed “scare tactics.” Here are the components of that scheme:

Facebook Ads

A web of retirement-themed Facebook ads mixed politics with claims about impending economic crises. The ads often led to Metals.com, either with a direct link or through phone numbers that were answered at Metals.com. (It’s not clear exactly who bought the ads; the company says the ads were run by third-party agencies from whom Metals.com bought “leads,” that is, information about customers who had expressed interest.).

Is Your Retirement Protected from the Deep State? A newly-liberal majority Congress cares more about chaos than your security!

This “sign up” ad, which began running in February 2019, linked to Metals.com’s privacy policy. In order to run this kind of ad, which includes a submission form pre-filled with the user’s personal information, advertisers must include a link to a privacy policy. Additionally Egon Pearson, the entity listed as having paid for the ad, is a recruiting agency that has posted job openings at Metals.com, has an address in the same building as Metals.com’s offices, and features a picture of Lucas Asher, one of Metals.com’s leaders, on its Facebook page.

“Protect Your Retirement From The Coming Account Freeze”

This ad, from a Facebook page called “Retired Republicans,” also listed Metals.com’s privacy policy. The “sign up” form in the ad included a telephone number. When Quartz reporter Hanna Kozlowska called the number, someone who identified themselves as from Metals.com picked up.

Text Message “News Alerts” and “Polls”

After Quartz reporter Jeremy Merrill provided contact information through a Facebook ad, he began receiving phone calls nearly every day. When he returned the calls, some were answered at Metals.com. He also began receiving numerous text message “news alerts” like these:

This message, sent in March 2019, implies that US president Donald Trump sold all of his stocks in response to a prediction of a recession. He did sell almost all of his stocks, but in June 2016, nearly three years beforehand.

On April 22, Trump sued to try to stop the US House Oversight Committee from obtaining financial records from his accounting firm.

A Metals.com spokesman who said his name was David Rubenstein acknowledged that the company paid a third-party agency for a text-message autoresponder service, and said the agency came up with the content.

Squeeze Pages

Squeeze pages are web pages meant to force a website visitor to take a specific action, such as calling a phone number listed on the site, without offering any other potentially distracting options.

One “squeeze page” linked to Metals.com was titled “Dem Tax Plan Indoc” — short for indoctrination.

When Quartz called the number listed on this squeeze page, the phone was answered by someone on the Metals.com’s sales floor. This page, a link to which was included in a text message in September, copied from a 2018 Financial Times article about policy proposals from the UK political party Liberal Democrats alongside a photograph of Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic candidate for US president—as though the UK policy plans had been proposed in the US.

Phone sales scripts

If any of these marketing methods succeeded, an elderly conservative might call in to Metals.com. If they did, according to sales scripts reviewed by Quartz, they’d be pitched on investing in gold or silver with references to faux expertise on retirement accounts, conspiracy theories, the “deep state” and some legitimate news stories, presented in a misleading way.

These scripts were provided by a salesperson, who said that successful sales approaches were written down and circulated among Metals.com salespeople. While the wording is corroborated by other documents and Quartz’s phone calls to Metals.com, the documents themselves have not been independently authenticated.

Here’s some of what the scripts said:

Deep State has been hard at work.

Then, the script falsely warns that:

Janet Yellen, Gary Cohn, and their group of merry liberals have decided to attack retirement accounts

… to account for a planned corporate tax rate reduction. The same script also warned, again falsely, of a “fed coin” plan to replace the dollar with cryptocurrency.

“The Senate just stripped another one of our rights away!!!!!!” 

… said one script, referring to a tight Senate vote allowing banks to include mandatory arbitration clauses in banking contracts, which force disputes to private arbitration, instead of letting unhappy customers sue in court. Ironically, the account agreement on Metals.com’s website includes such a clause, which the company has attempted to enforce against customers.

Another script suggested salespeople ask:

And just to see if the tax implication even effect you or would effect you, what’s the approximate value of that 401k/IRA?

No matter how they answered, it seems, the scripted reply was:

Ok yes, you would be affected.

Ultimately, it’s up to state regulators to decide what constitutes investment advice. The company has been accused of giving investment advice by state securities authorities in several states. A Metals.com spokesman said its salespeople were not allowed to give investment advice.

Getting help.

If you or someone you know lost money in a gold or silver scheme, here’s how to get help.

Let us know if you know more.

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