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Listen to how precious-metals sellers psychologically manipulate elderly conservatives

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Lucas Asher, on a mic.

“There is an evil that’s against us,” the precious-metals salesman says to his elderly, conservative client on the phone. Later, he adds, “they want to see this country go down in flames.”

The dramatic language is part of the sales pitch at Metals.com, caught on recorded phone calls. They display in disturbing detail the psychologically manipulative tactics the company has used to gain the confidence of elderly conservatives and convince some of them to buy gold and silver coins at markups as high as 219%.

The playbook reflects classic persuasion and manipulation techniques that researchers of sales psychology say are used by skilled salespeople and con artists.

Metals.com has been in legal hot water with multiple state securities administrators, who have accused it of offering investment advice without being appropriately registered and, in some instances, making false statements to investors about the value of the coins. The company has denied the allegations.

Quartz previously reported on what has happened after a successful Metals.com pitch—seniors invest tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then lose as much as half of their retirement savings to supposedly-collectible coins priced at about double the value of the actual gold and silver contained in the coins. But new audio reviewed by Quartz, including nine hours of recordings of sales calls and in-house training sessions, reveals exactly how salespeople pitched politically-conservative seniors to invest in overpriced coins. Some of the investors were lured to the company by microtargeted Facebook ads about retirement.

Leading with fear

That’s a line the company’s leader, Lucas Asher—also a flamboyant influencer and rock band frontman— says during a morning meeting in which he trains the company’s salespeople, according to one of the recordings. The recordings are consistent with sales scripts reviewed by Quartz, customers’ descriptions of phone calls, former employees’ descriptions of company meetings, and the language used in Facebook ads Quartz has linked to the company.

Just as he instructs employees, within a few seconds of starting a recorded phone conversation with a client, Asher changes the topic to immigration or, rather, political disinformation about immigration:

The basis of this Metals.com pitch is a fear-based appeal: that precious metals are the safest investment because the stock market will collapse, the banks will take your money, there will be war, or a number of other terrifying scenarios will occur.

This step in a pitch is called “the play,” according to scholars of con artists. It is “the moment when you first hook a victim and begin to gain her trust. And that is accomplished, first and foremost, through emotion,” writes Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and author of the book “The Confidence Game.”

This approach works quite well with the client, who follows with their own narrative about Democrats letting in “illegals” to get more voting power. The client declined to comment for this story, and Quartz has removed their end of the conversation from the recordings.

Politically-focused fear-based appeals are not an uncommon approach for sales schemes targeted at older people, said Marguerite DeLiema, a professor at the University of Minnesota and gerontologist who specializes in scams. “Anytime that there’s a new law passed or legislation you see this wave of scams that are related to that,” she said. Immigration is one such area, but after the Affordable Care Act was passed, she said, many older people were getting calls about their Medicaid or Medicare supposedly changing. The callers would then ask for Social Security numbers to “set up a new plan.” The scammers were “riding the tidal wave of confusion and uncertainty following these legislative changes,” DeLiema said.

Asher did not respond to two requests for comment, one sent to him personally and another through his attorneys; previously he has claimed to be merely a passive investor in the company and wrote in an email, “I do not conduct any sales at metals.” Several people who have interacted with Asher identified the recorded voice as his, and he identifies himself as “Lucas” in the recording of the call.

Gaining trust

It’s not about a transaction, Asher says, it’s about a common sense of mission. He seems to be creating a sense of kinship between himself and the client.

After the client mentioned their Christian faith, Asher seems to associate himself more closely with them—and that he’s a “believer” a lot like them.

Konnikova writes, “We are more trusting of people who seem more familiar and more similar to us, and we open up to them in ways we don’t to strangers: those like us and those we know or recognize are unlikely to want to hurt us. And they’re more likely to understand us.”

“The more familiar and similar someone seems, the more you like them, the more you share with them, the more information the con artist has to feed back to you. And the circle begins anew,” she writes.

In another example, after a conversation about the Bible, Asher combines fear and a personal connection.

Here, he does it again:

Making a connection with a potential client based on shared interests or values is betting on the idea that the client will automatically trust the salesperson more. Scammers and legitimate sales professionals rely on the mental shortcuts and automatic behaviors that humans have devised to deal with all the stimuli in our environments, writes Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus at Arizona State University and leading expert on sales psychology, in his seminal book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” Most people aren’t aware that they are using these shortcuts, he says. “It is vital that we clearly recognize one of their properties: They make us terribly vulnerable to anyone who does know how they work,” Cialdini writes.

In a call with another client, another salesman follows the same playbook as Asher, excoriating Barack Obama throughout the conversation and calling the former president a “communist or socialist.”

In the recording, the salesman identifies himself as “Simon Bata,” and several former employees who heard portions of the audio said the voice was that of Simon Batashvili. Batashvili has referred to himself as a founder of Metals.com.

After a discussion of the “deep state,” and how it controls the Federal Reserve, Batashvili says that “the last time someone went against the Fed was the Mr. John F. Kennedy and, but we know what happened to him.” Then he pivots to Trump, saying he’s a “great man.” To that, the client says that they are afraid Trump might get shot.

“But you know who should have gotten shot,” Batashvili answers, to the client’s agreement.

Batashvili did not respond to a request for comment about this call and specifically who he meant should have been shot. Former employees noted that he and Asher were rarely on the phone with customers, but said the phrases and approaches heard in the recordings were typical of what they trained others to do.

Wielding authority

Asher’s references to the various experts, celebrities, and the “Bloomberg terminals” are ways of asserting his authority on the call with a client, according to DeLiema, who reviewed excerpts of a transcript of the call and of the meetings.

This is what con artists do, Cialdini writes. They try to establish clout by draping “themselves with titles, clothes, and trappings of authority,” he writes Cialdini.

(Beck is a conservative commentator and Stossel is a libertarian TV personality. Kolanovic is the head of macro quantitative and derivatives research at JPMorgan. Asher seems to be talking about an “investment summit” in Bermuda, which Beck and Stossel attended. Beck, Stossel, and Kolanovic did not respond to a request for comment. The “kill switch” Asher mentions relates to an obscure notion that China might sell the huge amounts of US treasury bonds it holds, crashing the value of the dollar.)

In another instance, the client asks about an investment option. Asher answers:

Here, Asher refers to a supposed authority on the subject—Mulvaney, whose 2016 financial statement shows investments in gold and silver bars, along with precious-metals-related stocks and exchange-traded funds. But also uses a method called “bandwagoning,” DeLiema said. The aim typically is to show that the potential client would be a part of a larger group, thus legitimizing their decision. For good measure, Asher adds flattery, also a classic sales technique.

Consistency

Asher seemingly instructs salespeople to leverage a psychological phenomenon called consistency—getting the client to say yes several times in a row, first to innocuous questions then to more prying ones, in order to “qualify” a potential client.

Cialdini writes that we are almost obsessed with staying true to our initial commitments, a trait salespeople use to their advantage.

“If I can get you to make a commitment (that is, to take a stand, to go on the record), I will have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment. Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with that stand,” Cialdini writes.

Why older clients may be more vulnerable

About one in 18 older Americans fall victim to scams annually, research has found, but that’s likely an undercount, said DeLiema.

Generally, older adults are more risk-averse than younger people, DeLiema said, noting that many sales schemes targeting the elderly include discussions of supposedly risk-free options. “So it’s not that these older adults are all of a sudden behaving out of character. It’s completely in character.”

Asher says on the call that the client would be mitigating risk to their retirement by moving their assets to cash, as a step toward investing in precious metals. First, he asserts that if they keep their retirement in the stock market, it would be under the control of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chief Jay Clayton, whom he portrays as an “Obama appointee” with the power to “seize” retirement assets by “executive order.”

(In fact, Clayton was appointed to the SEC by President Trump.)

Asher later adds that the financial move he suggests would be a lower risk than keeping money in securities:

And finally, he blends it all together, starting with a fear element (“illegals coming,” social unrest), and embellishes the pitch by referencing a source with authority (JPMorgan), equates the supposedly low risk of investing in precious metals to something he has established that the client responds well to (Noah’s Ark) — essentially a quadruple assault of persuasion techniques.

Listen for yourself:

Getting help.

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

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This story is part of the Quartz investigation team’s ongoing reporting on precious-metals sellers. Here’s how to reach us with tips and information:

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