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Gold rush brings windfalls and warnings

08/25/2011 9:02 PM

08/26/2011 6:28 AM

As the price of gold has steadily marched to a record high of $1,917 an ounce -- before sliding back some -- those late-night commercials and telemarketing calls from gold sellers have grown more tempting.

As does the urge to rummage through drawers for gold jewelry to haul to the nearest gold dealer.

But regulators, consumer advocates and financial planners have two words for these impulses: Proceed cautiously.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority issued an investor alert Thursday warning about scams that promote gold stocks.

"Con artists are using the run-up in the price of gold as a hook to part investors from their money. Investors should think twice before investing in any gold investment promising exponential returns, or any company that claims it is a buyout target for other mining companies," Gerri Walsh, FINRA's vice president for investor education, said in a statement.

In particular, investors should be wary of investment pitches that use scare tactics such as the threat of inflation or an economic meltdown, claim to tie stock performance to the general rise in gold prices, or make speculative claims based on new reserves, FINRA said.

Gold investments also made the annual top 10 list of products that threaten unwary investors, which was released this week by the North American Securities Administrators Association.

In the past few months, two big gold-selling scams out of Florida have taken in millions of investor dollars.

This month, Jamie Campany, the founder of South Florida-based Gold Bullion Exchange, pleaded guilty to fraud charges in a Ponzi scheme involving more than 1,400 investors who lost $29.5 million. Investors were solicited through telemarketing calls to buy bullion with margin-type financing, paying a small part of the cost upfront. After commissions and fees of up to 18 percent, state and federal investigators determined that no bullion was ever purchased.

In the other case, a federal judge halted a telemarketing operation called American Precious Metals Llc. in Deerfield Beach, Fla., that allegedly conned senior citizens into buying precious metals on credit without clearly disclosing costs and risks or that they would have to pay more money or lose their investment. The scheme took more than $37 million from consumers, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The court froze the company's assets and appointed a receiver to oversee the business.

While the rising price of gold has made it popular this year, it's only a good investment if you can predict when to buy and when to sell, said Burk Rosenthal, a Fort Worth retirement planner who said he does not own gold.

Gold prices can be volatile. Just this week, after reaching $1,917 an ounce, prices moved sharply lower. On Wednesday, gold fell more than $100 an ounce, closing at $1,757, before recovering a bit Thursday.

"It used to be standard advice from a financial planner to have 5 percent of a portfolio in gold," he said. "Now it's not near as prevalent. It's a lousy long-term investment. I tell people to use gold for love -- as in buying jewelry -- or for fun, as in collecting gold coins for a hobby."

USA Today reported Tuesday that despite the huge price increase over the past 10 years, after factoring in inflation, gold has not equaled its high of $850 an ounce in 1981.

Investing at record highs is also not generally a good strategy, Rosenthal said.

"Warren Buffett buys when the stock is low," Rosenthal said. "We have a herd mentality now on gold."

Officials with the Texas State Securities Board and the Texas attorney general's office said they are not seeing gold scams in the state at the moment.

The Fort Worth Better Business Bureau has seen more problems related to the other side of gold -- selling it, according to John Riggins, the local BBB president.

Two companies, My Gold Envelope Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Superior Gold Group Llc. in Santa Monica, Calif., have F grades from the BBB and more than 350 complaints against them, Riggins said. Each solicits sellers to send gold items to them for money.

"The typical problem is people don't know how many karats are in what they send them, then they get a check for like $4.10 for a ring," Riggins said. He advises anyone trying to sell their gold to get an appraisal from a local jeweler.

Even Cash4Gold, one of the largest gold buyers in the nation that advertises regularly on television, has a C rating from the bureau.

"They have 325 complaints," Riggins said. "Consumers should look them up on the BBB website and make their own educated judgment from that." The site is www.fwbbb.org.

Because of high gold prices, customer traffic has been nonstop for two months at American Coin and Jewelry Exchange on south Hulen Street, owner Stephen Stierstorfer said.

"People are selling because they don't want to miss the big price increases recently and they're buying in hopes it will go up further," he said. "But gold has a lot of volatility and as the price goes higher, there are bigger swings. We advise people to have a wide diversification of investments and that gold is a long-term safety investment that you should buy and hope you never have to use."

Stierstorfer said that new gold retailers are popping up throughout the area, and that consumers should shop around before buying or selling, as prices will vary. Some gold retailers are coming into the area for just a few days to skirt licensing requirements, he said.

Gold is sold by weight and karat, the latter of which can be determined by a quick chemical test, Stierstorfer said. Karat levels are imprinted on gold pieces, but they're often cut off jewelry because of resizing.

High gold prices this week brought Becky Kinard of Aledo to Stierstorfer's store on Wednesday for an estimate on a couple of dozen gold coins she inherited from her father five years ago.

She had also learned from friends that the high prices would bring in money from old gold jewelry sitting in the bottom of her jewelry box.

"I was not looking to sell, but at this point it may never be this high again," she said.

She left the store with a smile, and a check for $17,358.

Teresa McUsic's columnappears Fridays.

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