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Traveling Gold-Buying Operation Generates Complaints Nationwide

WAXAHACHIE (CBSDFW.COM) - The tight economy is forcing a lot of people to sell their family heirlooms, especially their gold. But one of the largest operations, setting up shop at hotels across the country, is being accused of fraud.

The operations go under different names such as "Ohio Valley Gold and Silver Refinery" or "Treasure Hunters Roadshow."

Marlene Powell and her friend Karin Engel were curious when they spotted the ad. "It said as seen on TV, and with the words 'road show,'" Powell said.

They thought it was the "Antiques Roadshow," a common misconception that led to the company being sued for trademark violations. The women felt deceived again when they went to the event at a local Hampton Inn.  "I had a piece of 18 karat gold that I know for a fact was 18 karat and they told me, 'No it wasn't,'" said Powell.

They believe they were taken for hundreds of dollars and they're not alone. We compiled complaints from across the country, mostly from seniors. They include a 71-year-old in West Virginia and an 88-year-old on the Canadian border. Both are grandmothers desperate for cash, selling family heirlooms for pennies on the dollar.

After jeweler Tom Broadwin heard similar complaints from his customers, he decided to visit the same roadshow, traveling under another name, Premiere Estate Buyers.  "I had a gold bracelet filled with coins, unmistakably gold coins," said Broadwin. "The individual looked at it for a few minutes and told me they were plated. That was fraud right to my face."

Broadwin agreed to lend several CBS Local stations $8,000 worth of gold for our investigation. Before handing it over, he tested each piece for karat count and weight. We took the gold to three separate jewelers to confirm its value.

A producer from CBS San Francisco brought the gold to a show in Santa Cruz. Thirteen out of the 15 pieces were 18 karat gold.  But after carefully examining each item, a road show manager said: "I've got some 10 and 14 karat, a mix. Believe it or not half of what you have on the table here is copper."

Then several pieces of the jewelry went to Sacramento, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and to CBS 11.

A CBS 11 producer took $6,200 work of gold jewelry to a show at a hotel in Waxahachie. The appraiser told us some of the 18 carat gold was really only 14 carat gold. Our producer was offered $1,150 to buy it all and after bargaining for a while got a final offer of only $1,700.

In two other cities, appraisers got the karats right. In Philadelphia, CBS Philly producers were told 18 karat pieces were only 14 karats. In all, three out of the five initial offers we received were less than a quarter of the gold's value.

THR and Associates operates 120 traveling shows a week under at least 8 different names. Its corporate headquarters are in Springfield, Illinois.

"We are not in the business of lying to people," THR spokesperson Matthew Enright said.

First, Enright examined our gold and confirmed it was 18 karats. Then we showed him our undercover video, in which a salesman tells us one of the 18 karat pieces is only 10 karats.

CBS San Francisco asked Enright: "There's a bit of a trend here. Either he doesn't have a cursory knowledge of gold, or he's lying to customers."

His response: "Sure. I mean it's obviously a concern for me seeing that."

CBS Chicago also questioned why it had happened on multiple occasions. Enright said, "Well it's a very small percentage compared to 140 managers that we have."

He said employees are not trained to purposely deceive customers. But CBS San Francisco obtained a THR buying guide which shows employees are trained to make a first offer of $1.50 per pennyweight. The going rate is more than 30 times that.

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