$300 million gold scam reveals regulatory lapse

Despite the mountains of regulations that Washington prescribes each year, it seems that the agencies in charge of enforcement tend to prefer a pillow instead of a hammer.

As enforcement efforts fail, C-SPAN regularly programs lethargic legislators lecturing reckless regulators.

This month, C-SPAN featured findings of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which is investigating a 13-year rap sheet of gold investment scams targeting Florida seniors.

The hearing exposed how the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is supposed to deter bad actors from engaging in commodity scams, has devolved into a toothless agency, one that needs more than just excuses about budget cuts and promises on future education efforts to justify its existence.

The two-hour event revealed that current CFTC regulatory efforts aren’t working.

And, more importantly, it revealed why.  

How not to prevent a scam

This hearing wasn’t about big ticket issues like the London Whale, shadow over-the-counter markets, or any other global problems that financial regulators has slept through since 2000.

These were telemarketing scams run from inside Florida boiler rooms and assailed by Congress for more than three decades.

These scams targeted seniors’ retirement accounts with false promises of an assured rise in commodity prices. In turn, scammers scrapped away as much as 38% of each invested dollar toward debilitating management fees that tore more than 10,000 American retirees from their last knuckle-guarded dollars.

Averse to another market downturn, seniors believed they had made a safe investment in hard assets. But, for an investor to break even, gold had to appreciate 25% over the “purchase” price as these scammers were really selling metals leveraged futures laden with abysmal transaction and bogus “storage” fees, with the majority of investors ultimately losing huge sums upon the inevitable margin call.

These scams are older than most of Generation Y.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) at one point even noted that Congress investigated such gold scams in 1983.

So why is this still happening?

The reason is simple.

Our watchdogs rely on the same tired efforts of deterrence and public awareness.

In fact, two Senate members appeared so detached from the motivations of bad market actors that they too regurgitated the need to double down on this failed strategy.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) touted the importance of “consumer education” to prevent future scams. Nelson babbled how agency websites can provide future warnings to increase awareness of fraudsters, because, we all know that seniors spend their days reading the CFTC website.

Meanwhile, Collins promoted the placement of educational pamphlets in senior centers or emailing online newsletters to warn of scams. Of course, it will take the agency two years to choose which “subject line” to use and most seniors don’t read public pamphlets unless Wilford Brimley is on the cover.

The CFTC and other agencies have requested increases to budgets to promote consumer protection efforts and financial education – both tired exercises that have run their course – as a first line of defense.

Thankfully, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) drove a truck through such proposals and offered a blunter, more refreshing solution during the hearing. 

“The first line of defense is not consumer education,” she said. “The first line of defense is putting the crooks in prison.”

At least someone gets it.

A scammer apologizes

The hearing featured the testimony of a former scammer – or trader if you will – named Karl Spicer.

Spicer, who was deeply apologetic (in advance of his sentencing hearing) and warning others of telemarketing hijinks in the commodity markets, was convicted for his role in ripping off investors in a metals scam.

His testimony offered the purest rationale for why these scams continue 30 years later: the government agencies fail to instill the fear of God into these crooks. Without a fear of real consequences, criminals shift from scam to scam, and even if they are caught, they’re still undeterred and will continue swindling.

“With all due respect to the civil authorities, the people that I have encountered ... [they] don't really respect the civil authority bans," he said. "The gentleman I was with had a CFTC ban, he cooperated; he had a ban and he still went about doing business the very next day."

What’s worse, the scam companies work with lawyers to circumvent existing laws. These lawyers help scammers operate businesses under false names, deflect blame to subordinates, and detect Federal investigations, allowing them to shut down and quickly find a new scheme to enact.

Since 2001, these gold frauds have cost victims an estimated $300 million.

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