Meet our writers

 







Money August 2016

Dollar Sense

Metals – Sometimes Precious, Often a Scam: Silver, Gold and Collectible Coins in Your Retirement Nest Egg

By Teresa Ambord

It’s a good idea to talk with an advisor who has specific knowledge about this type of investment but who is not also trying to sell it to you.

* * *

If you decide to buy, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns consumers to vet the dealer carefully before trusting him or her with your assets. Most dealers are probably upright, but it only takes one crook to strip away your savings. Know this, says the FTC, if a seller of any product presses you to wire money for a payment, it’s probably a scam.

There’s no shortage of commercials urging you to buy gold and silver and other precious metals. The idea is that it’s a smart way to diversify your portfolio and protect your retirement funds. It might be. But of course everyone’s situation is different.

Before you sink money into any new investment product, talk it over with your accountant or financial advisor. It’s a good idea to talk with an advisor who has specific knowledge about this type of investment but who is not also trying to sell it to you.

If you decide to buy, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns consumers to vet the dealer carefully before trusting him or her with your assets. Most dealers are probably upright, but it only takes one crook to strip away your savings. Know this, says the FTC, if a seller of any product presses you to wire money for a payment, it’s probably a scam.

Before you invest, the FTC says slow down and do some homework:

  • Take your time, if the payment, in any form, has to be immediate, the right answer is almost certainly “no.” Urgency doesn’t necessarily mean an offer is a scam, but chances are, it does.
  • Be skeptical. Scam artists are adept liars, and may have airtight answers for everything. Don’t be fooled by slick appearances.
  • Risk happens. Honest salespeople will explain the risks of losing your investment. Scammers may say “there is no risk.” If there’s no risk, then there’s no return so, if you hear those words, don’t walk away, run. Another phrase scammers like to use is, “it makes sense.” Don’t take the salesperson’s word for it. Stop and ask if it makes sense for you.
  • Check out who you’re dealing with. Is there published information on the company? Check with law enforcement in the community where the company is located. Keep in mind, if the company provides references, those references may be paid to provide good reviews.
  • Ask if the investment has a track record. Don’t settle for being told a company’s record is “similar to” for example, Apple, a company you’ve heard about in the news. Scammers often try to piggyback on the reputation of a company you’ll recognize.
  • Get details. Legitimate companies account for investor money, always. Ask for written proof of how much of your money is going into the investment, how much into commissions, promoters’ profits and marketing. Most of your money should be going to the investment. If you think you’ve spotted a scam, report it to the FTC at FTC.gov complaint.

With all that said, investing in precious metals may be a great deal for a savvy investor. Here’s general advice from the FTC before buying gold in any form, which may also apply to other metals and collectible coins.

No guarantee. Keep in mind, there’s no guarantee that gold will increase or even hold its value. The price of gold can fluctuate widely over time.

Confiscation. As you shop, some sellers may tell you the government may confiscate gold. The FTC says, no current federal law or Treasury Department regulation supports any of these claims.

Markup. Coin dealers, banks, brokerage firms, precious metal dealers charge more for their products than the value of the product, such as gold coins. The markup varies, so it pays to compare prices.    

Appraisal. Get an independent appraisal of the specific product you’re considering buying. Keep in mind, the seller’s price may be inflated.

Related costs. Consider the additional costs you might run up against, such as insuring your investment, paying for a safety deposit box or renting offsite storage.

Receipt. Assuming you buy, get a detailed receipt for your transaction. If that sounds elementary, you should know that many people forget that step. Read the receipt to make sure it reflects the deal accurately.

Research. Enter the seller’s name into a search engine online, to see what comes up. Read the experiences other people have had with the company. If possible reach out to some of those people offline, to clarify the details. You can also contact your local consumer protection agency (https://www.usa.gov/state-consumer) and your state Attorney General (http://www.naag.org/). Research of this kind is not foolproof. It depends on someone before you registering a complaint with the authorities, but it can be very helpful.

Bottom line, slow down, do some research, comparison shop, and don’t let the salesperson’s urgency affect you. Ignore the warning that this deal will go away if you don’t act right away. Better to walk away with your money intact and miss a possible deal than to act fast and walk away with empty pockets and an empty retirement fund.

 

Background Breakdown

1. Fraudulent Collectible Coins

New York’s attorney general issued an “Investor Alert” saying that the rare coin business has “evolved into a major American business sector, serving up to 20 million investors.” As a result, fraudulent coins dealers are also a growing problem, he added. Investment brokers who get bounced out of selling stocks and bonds for shady dealing often turn to selling coins which they claim are higher grade than they are. Buyer beware!

 

2. Busted!

TV viewers may remember a seller that was known to advertise on popular TV stations. Those ads, by a company called DiscountMetalBrokers, Inc., disappeared, after the Federal Trade Commission shut them down. What did they do wrong? DiscountMetalBrokers urged “smart investors” to “own gold and silver.”

That may be good advice for many consumers – depending on their situations – but only if the dealer is honest. Employees of DiscountMetalBrokers were trained to ask callers to pay a deposit by check or credit card, then pay the balance by check or wire transfer. Customers were assured their orders would ship soon, but hundreds of buyers never received their precious metals, and never got their money back. Thanks to complaints, the FTC stepped in to shut down their operations.

 

3. Brothers Run a Mega Million Dollar Coin Fraud Scam

Joseph Romano and his brothers masterminded a telemarketing scam that bilked tens of millions of dollars from consumers, selling them coins for far more than their actual value. A hard-selling team of telemarketers operating in Long Island targeted the elderly, said prosecutors. Over an eight-year period Romano’s team bilked customers out of about $40 million from over 1,400 victims. While the victims in many cases lost their life savings, the Romano brothers used those stolen savings to finance lavish lifestyles.

The story of the Romano brothers was featured on an episode of “American Greed,” on CNBC. One victim told CNBC, "I got a phone call telling me that they knew I was interested in a particular type of coin, the Franklin half dollars, and that they had some good deals." Once the callers realized they had a willing buyer, they grew more relentless, bombarding him with high-pressure sales pitches. The victim wanted to believe it was true, saying “I was trying to give them one more benefit of the doubt hoping it would turn around. For me, it never did."

Following a flood of complaints, an investigation and arrest, Romano was sentenced to 15 years in prison and forced to pay $7 million in restitution (a fraction of what he stole). Later, from his prison cell he tried to hire a hit man to kill the judge and prosecutor in his case, claiming he’d been “entrapped.”

 

Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

Meet Teresa