Brett Arends's ROI: Brokerage firm lured politically right-leaning seniors into gold-coin scam, says U.S. regulator

A finance company boasting hundreds of apparently glowing online “customer reviews” and an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau was this week civilly charged with cheating over 700 investors — many of them senior citizens — out of more than $30 million over 5 years.

El Segundo, Calif.–based Red Rock Secured and its controlling chief executive, Sean Kelly, were accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of playing on the retirement and tax fears of older investors to sell them gold and silver coins at vastly inflated prices to hold in self-directed IRAs.

The markup on the coins “was almost always above 100 percent, and typically 120 percent or more,” the SEC said in its complaint.

Between 2017 and last year, Red Rock pocketed more than $30 million of the $50 million investors paid for the coins, said the SEC, which also sued two former Red Rock executives. 

Attorney Michael Schafler of the Los Angeles law firm Cohen Williams, representing both Red Rock and its CEO, said the company had “nothing to hide” and has been “completely cooperative” with the SEC investigation.

“Red Rock has demonstrated that it is focused on compliance and providing clients with information necessary to make reasoned and informed decisions about purchasing precious metals,” he added. “Red Rock stands by that. It looks forward to the opportunity to defend itself against the government’s allegations in Court.”

According to the SEC, Red Rock used an aggressive marketing campaign to target investors, especially those who were “conservative” or “right wing” politically and “over 59½ [years old].” 

Sales personnel played on customers’ fears about government policy, inflation, the stock market and retirement to persuade investors to move IRA funds to Red Rock and invest in gold and silver bullion, according to the SEC. But then, using what the commission calls a “bait and switch,” they persuaded investors instead to buy niche “premium” gold coins with huge, but hidden, markups, which included an 8% sales commission.

These so-called premium coins included an obscure silver Canadian coin for which Red Rock Secured controlled the entire market, allowing it to claim falsely that the “market value” of the coin was more than twice the value of its silver content, the SEC said.

Red Rock Secured salespeople were told to pitch the idea of a “worry-free retirement” to potential clients, while warning them that in the stock market “you could wake up and half your retirement could be gone,” the SEC said.

“The defendants used fear and lies to defraud investors out of millions of dollars from their hard-earned retirement savings,” said Antonia Apps, director of the SEC’s New York office.

There was no hint of any of this in the company’s glowing online “customer reviews.” At Google, Red Rock had an average rating of 4.8 stars out of 5 from 136 self-described customers. At Trustpilot, it got an average rating of 4.8 stars out of 5 from 167 alleged customers. Trustpilot said the rating was “excellent.” At the Better Business Bureau, Red Rock got an average rating of 4.75 stars out of 5 across 96 reviews. At Consumer Affairs it got an average rating of 4.9 stars out of 5.

The Better Business Bureau, contacted by MarketWatch, said it had added an alert to its site about the SEC probe into Red Rock. But, it added, “BBB ratings are not a guarantee of a business’s reliability or performance. BBB recommends that consumers consider a business’s BBB rating in addition to all other available information about the business.”

The organization, which provides information about businesses through a rating system and handles consumer complaints, said its standard policy is to check that all reviews are from legitimate customers by contacting the company being reviewed. The BBB does not possess legal or policing powers. 

Business-review platform Trustpilot also told MarketWatch it had added an alert to the Red Rock Secured review page.

“Trustpilot is an open, independent review platform, meaning anyone who has had an experience with a business can leave a review — whether positive or negative — on the business’s Trustpilot profile page,” the company said in a statement “We are currently investigating Red Rock Secured to ensure that they are using our platform in line with our business guidelines, and should we find any evidence they are not, we will take the necessary steps to prevent it.”

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Google and Consumer Affairs could not be reached for comment.

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