The Pitfalls Of Buying Gold And Silver Online, And How To Avoid Them
Back in 2014, online bullion dealer Tulving shocked its many customers by suddenly failing. See Coinweek's story: How does $40M of Gold and Silver Disappear: The Collapse of Tulving Company
Last week another one bit the dust:
(Seattle Times) - Northwest Territorial Mint, a Federal Way company that sells precious metals and produces medals and medallions, filed for Chapter 11 protection Friday, a month after the company and its owner were hit with large jury verdicts in a defamation case.
Northwest Territorial Mint, a Federal Way company that sells precious metals and produces medals and medallions, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Friday.
The move came a month after the company and its owner, Ross B. Hansen, were each hit with multimillion-dollar jury verdicts in a defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuit brought in Nevada by a Los Angeles businessman.
The company's filing says it has more than 200 unsecured creditors, and its assets and liabilities both exceed $10 million. Its biggest listed debts are a $7 million judgment in favor of the businessman, Bradley Steven Cohen, and a $5.5 million judgment in favor of his firm, Cohen Asset Management, both classified as disputed.
The defamation suit claimed Northwest Territorial Mint and Hansen created anonymous websites that compared Cohen to Bernard Madoff, the Wall Street broker convicted of a massive Ponzi scheme. The lawsuit claimed the animosity stemmed from litigation by an affiliate of Cohen's firm, which had been the mint's landlord at an Auburn warehouse.
The federal judge's order in the defamation case indicates the judgments against Northwest Territorial Mint and Hansen total $37 million.
This morning a DollarCollapse.com reader (and disappointed NTM customer) sent the the following:
I've dealt with this company many times since 2008 and was accustomed to excessive delays, but eventually did receive the ordered products. In September 2015, my wife and I placed an order and paid by credit card. At the time of order, delivery was estimated to be 6 - 8 weeks. In December, they informed us that there would be delays and this repeated in January, February and March. In early March, they told us the order would be shipped in the first week of April and instructed us to call to confirm in April. Yesterday, April 1, my wife called again and the order was still on hold - that, in fact, everything had been suspended. This made me very uneasy and this morning (April 2) we called the credit card issuer to find out what they could do to reverse the charges. Their policy limits that action to 120 days, even if the product wasn't delivered. When the credit card company checked their information on NWT Mint, they tell us that as of April 1 NWT Mint is now under BANCRUPTCY PROTECTION. That is not good news, and I fear we have lost our $3,000+
Presumably a lot of other people are in the same boat. So here's how to keep something similar from happening to you:
- First and foremost, don't binge; dollar-cost-average. Customers who did all their metals buying with one big order, only to see the whole thing disappear, were devastated by NTM's failure. But customers who placed small, regular orders were out considerably less. This is yet another reason (along with the extreme volatility of metal prices) to enter this market gradually and steadily rather than all at once.
- While your money is at risk, watch for emerging problems. From the previously-referenced Coinweek article:
- Know the "statute of limitations" on your credit card. As the above reader found out, the order could have been cancelled via the credit card up to 120 days in. Presumably different cards offer different terms, so it's imperative to know when this feature runs out on the card you're using, and to take advantage of it. Cancel the payment if your metal hasn't arrived by the expiration of the card's protection.
- And finally, keep some perspective. Bullion dealer bankruptcies are a bit like plane crashes. They're big news when they happen, which makes the event seem more common than it is. Dozens of reputable dealers (see here and here, for instance) have been delivering on time and without hassle -- and without publicity -- all along. So Tulving and NTM don't justify swearing off on-line bullion buying. But they are a good reason for vigilance until that package arrives.
Fortunately, I was suspicious. I don't consider myself paranoid, but I do believe in Ronald Reagan's "Trust, but verify." I looked at the Better Business Bureau (BBB) reports, and saw a big uptick in complaints, from 1 every 6 months to 8 within 6 months. In a private forum, I wrote "So the first sign of trouble with a business like this, in my opinion, would be a noticeable change in delivery times and "juggling" orders." At that point, I did not think they had a problem. But even if I had, I would have had no clue how monstrous a problem it would become.
Finally in September, 2013, stories started getting out about delays at The Tulving Company. Someone claimed they had sent $200,000 to Tulving five months prior, and had not received any metal yet. The problem with Internet forums, however, is that while they are great at getting information out, they are nearly anonymous. Some of the early complainers were accused of being shills from competitors. Those that had done business with Tulving before would back up the company, recalling times they had gotten their orders very quickly. Nobody really knew who or what to believe.
I decided to spend a few minutes back at the BBB website to see where things stood. There was a noticeable change this time, with 18 complaints in 2 months. Not to the point of screaming "scam!", but enough that I really started to take notice. In the private forum I mentioned, I explained that I was confused because "it doesn't fit what I would expect the 2 most plausible fraud scenarios to be:  funding his retirement, or  ponzi scheme funding a flashy lifestyle (ala Bernie Madoff)."
At that point, I knew there was a problem. From the many reports that Hannes was picking and choosing which orders to ship each day, I thought maybe he was simply unable to properly manage the business anymore. Perhaps he needed some extra people to help ship orders, perhaps his health had deteriorated. After 20 years of impeccable service, it was hard to imagine the worst.
What I should have focused on at the time was the length of the delays: even in June, 2013 and July, 2013, the average delays reported were 7-8 weeks. The FTC does not allow companies to take orders if they know they cannot ship it within the timeframe they specify (or 30 days, if no time is specified). And Hannes himself stated in his FAQ that he believes taking over 30 days to deliver is a futures contract, which he is not allowed to sell.
My "Aha!" moment was in October, 2013, when someone reported that she sent Tulving 220 ounces of gold to Tulving, and couldn't get them to pay her. It's one thing to delay bullion (there could be delays due to drop-shippers, metal shortages, insurance limits, heavy volume, etc.). But I realized that the inability to pay cash was the smoking gun, since he should have had a huge amount of money sitting in the bank from all the delayed orders.
It slowly dawned on me that The Tulving Company had a massive backlog of orders worth many millions of dollars that they would not be able to fulfill. I knew this was not going to have a pretty ending, I knew that something was terribly wrong. In a number of cases, people had trusted The Tulving Company with their life savings. Worse, I had recommended Tulving to many people over the years. I had to do something, I had to let people know.
By the end of November, The Tulving Company had racked up over 150 complaints, and by the end of 2013 they had nearly 250 complaints.