Fears of a recession have driven the price of gold to levels not seen in more than five years. but that's bringing out the scam artists.
They prey on people looking to sell their gold to cash in on the high prices and on people looking to buy gold for its traditional role as a storehouse of value in uncertain times.
"Gold is a hedge against calamity, and this is a very dangerous world," gold expert Scott Travers told CNBC's "American Greed."
Travers, a New York-based gold coin dealer, is the author of multiple books about investing in the precious metal.
He said common scams include telemarketers who will offer to sell you gold that might not actually exist, and unscrupulous gold dealers who will not give you a fair price for your gold. Also an issue, particularly in times like these — gold that is illegally mined or is the product of criminal activity.
"They're produced with chemicals that are not environmentally friendly, and they're produced with laundered money and from illegal gold sources," Travers said.
The last time prices were this high, around 2013, three Miami gold salesmen — Samer Barrage, Juan Granda and Renato Rodriguez — launched a massive smuggling operation through their employer, NTR Metals, moving some $3.6 billion worth of gold into the U.S. in just three years. The gold was mined under deplorable conditions in Peru and other Latin American countries and financed with drug money.
"The elements who are controlling that gold mining are criminal elements with connections to narcotics trafficking," former Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Maderal told "American Greed." "So it's actually used as a mechanism to launder that money."
Private investigator David Bolton said the social costs of the operation were enormous.
"They've used child labor in Peru and in Colombia. They've been poisoning the environment, they've been deforesting the Amazon," he told "American Greed."
Barrage, Granda and Rodriguez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering and were sentenced to prison. NTR Metals parent company Elemetal, which said it was cooperating with the investigation, pleaded guilty last year to a single count of failure to maintain an adequate anti-money-laundering program. The company agreed to forfeit $15 million and accepted a five-year ban from the international gold market.
But the billions of dollars in illicit gold processed through the scheme are impossible to trace, meaning most of it is still out there, owned by unwitting buyers in the form of jewelry, coins or gold bars. And authorities know there are plenty more operations still active — especially when gold prices are high, as they are now.
How can you harness the value of gold in these uncertain times without getting scammed? Travers urges buyers to stay away from the telemarketers and other dealers who push you to buy it sight unseen and offer to store it for you
"The most important part of gold buying is to make certain that you hold the gold, that you have the gold in your physical possession," he said.
Perhaps the safest way to own physical gold, Travers said, is in the form of American Eagle Coins produced by the United States Mint. That way you can be sure the gold is pure and legitimately sourced.
"The U.S. government very carefully regulates the type of gold that that coin is made from, and the U.S. government and the U.S. Department of the Treasury aggressively prosecutes counterfeiters of the American Eagle," Travers said.
Look for the investment-grade version of the coins—which are literally worth their weight in gold — called bullion coins. The mint does not sell bullion coins directly to the public, but it offers a directory of bullion dealers online.
Owning the coins is not without risks, including the very real possibility that the price will go down. There are also costs to keep the gold secure. Travers recommends a safe deposit box at a bank, or a good safe kept on an upper floor of your home.
Many choose instead to invest in gold by purchasing shares in an exchange-traded fund that owns and holds the physical gold. Among the most popular is SPDR Gold Shares ETF, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange. Each share is based on the price of one-tenth of an ounce of gold, minus the fund's expenses for things like storing the precious metal.
Backers say investing in gold through the ETF can be more cost-effective than holding the gold yourself. Travers suggests only using this vehicle if your time horizon is short — six months to a year. And regardless, he says, be wary of anyone who suggests buying gold or gold shares as a way to make money.
"From my point of view, gold is an insurance policy, not an investment," he said. "It should constitute a very small portion of everyone's holdings."
Buy low, sell high
Ready to unload some of your gold to take advantage of the high prices? Whether you are selling gold bullion, coins, jewelry, or even dental fillings, you will find no shortage of willing buyers these days. But you will also encounter plenty of risk.
The first step is to learn the value of what you are selling. In the case of gold jewelry or collectible coins, look for a stamp on the item that shows the karat weight of the gold.
"The closer to 24 karat that you have, the more pure the gold is, so 24 karat gold is nearly pure gold. Twelve karat gold is 50 percent of 24 so it's about 50 percent gold," Travers said.
Next, look for similar items online at auction sites like eBay.
"You need to be certain you know what you have by checking the comparables," Travers said.
Then do your homework about the dealer you are thinking about working with. While there is no central agency that regulates gold dealers, many are affiliated with professional organizations that offer membership directories online.
Members of the Jewelers of America adhere to a strict professional code of ethics, including robust anti-money-laundering measures. For coins, the American Numismatic Association enforces a code of ethics as well, and it offers mediation services in the event of a dispute. Certified Acceptance Corp. can help you locate a coin dealer and verify the coins you are looking to sell.
Gold has an almost mystical ability to dazzle us — especially during uncertain times like these. But remember, that is exactly what gold scammers are counting on.
Is your favorite piece of jewelry the product of a crime? See how smugglers and money launderers turn dirty money into pure gold. Watch an ALL NEW episode of "American Greed," Monday September 9 at 10 pm ET/PT only on CNBC.