Be wary of gold and silver coin sellers taking advantage of the coronavirus

Don’t let the pandemic scare you into bad investments.
Don’t let the pandemic scare you into bad investments.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Precious metals sellers never let a good crisis go to waste, using people’s fears of market turmoil to convince them to invest in an asset like gold or silver coins. These investments may seem safe, but some sellers price their coins at double their actual value, and that can leave the investor poorer.

“I think the precious metals and so-called rare coin telemarketers will be feasting on the personal and economic misfortune caused by coronavirus pandemic,” said a former industry insider with many years of experience, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they want to avoid any risk of legal retaliation.

Quartz has seen precious-metals sellers already using the virus as a sales pitch in marketing emails and Facebook ads whose audience, according to data from Facebook’s ad library, was older than 55. We’re not linking to them here because it’s not yet clear which ads may be connected to overpriced coins and which are not. The message is similar: the stock market will crash imminently, other investors are rushing to “safe-haven assets”—so you should, too.

In November, Quartz published an extensive investigation into, a precious-metals company that was using various crises, both real and fabricated, to persuade conservative seniors to invest in supposedly collectible gold and silver coins. The salespeople used fears of the US immigration crisis as a way to get customers on board, or they’d talk about a supposed “coming account freeze” and impending doom in the financial markets. But some gold and silver coins they sold as a safe alternative to the stock market were massively overpriced, sometimes as much as 219% of the metal’s value, costing investors large chunks of their retirement savings in an instant. Several state securities agencies have ordered the company to stop its allegedly deceptive practices.

In 2019, the City Attorney in Los Angeles sued Lear Capital, another precious metals seller, for charging exorbitant transaction fees and misleading investors. The city accused Lear of “aggressive sales tactics designed to overwhelm, confuse, and pressure the customer into making a purchase,” according to the lawsuit, which is still pending. (Lear denied all the allegations.)

This kind of pitch is not new.

“During the financial crisis in 2008 many investors lost nearly half of their retirement savings. In looking for a ‘safe haven’ many turned to precious metals. Unfortunately, investors unknowingly directed their inquiries to unscrupulous boiler rooms where they paid outrageous mark-ups on their purchases and immediately lost 30-50% or more of their remaining assets,” the former industry insider said.

During that era, one of the biggest names in the business was a company called Goldline, which was advertised by conservative media personalities like Glenn Beck. A US House of Representatives investigation found that the company was overcharging its customers by as much as 208%.

One radio ad from the time is cited in the investigation:

“If things get dicey, we’re on a banking crisis now, the declining value of the dollar, what will hold its value? Gold. I want you to call [number] and find out about buying gold. You can buy it as an investment. I buy it really as insurance because it’s the one thing that will have value forever.”

“Many of those buyers are barely breaking even in today’s $1,650 gold spot market,” because of the huge profit margins baked into the coins they bought, the industry insider said. “The 2008-2010 financial environment will pale by comparison when we look at today’s scenario.”

“Never, ever, buy precious metals as an investment,” writes Michael Taylor, a financial advice columnist at the San Antonio Express-News, who, like many other financial experts, advises against buying gold. Gold had its biggest weekly price drop in seven years last week (starting March 12).

Nevertheless, “If people want to buy bullion, they may want to consider coins or bars that follow the spot prices dollar for dollar,” the industry insider said. Gold spot prices are listed here. “Buy from reputable companies and do your research.”

“Don’t be deceived into buying coins that are overpriced or modern common coins represented to be ‘collectible’ or ‘rare,’ ” the former insider said. “If a salesperson urges you to act quickly, run the other way.”

If you think you or someone you know might have been a victim of a precious-metals scam, there are resources available to help.