ST PAUL, Minn. — When Joan Williamson started giving collectible coins as gifts, her family at first thought nothing. A lifelong nurse, they knew Joan was smart, independent and not easily fooled, but were instantly suspicious when they saw dozens of the coins all over her California home.
“They're in plastic cases,” said Ashleigh and David Williamson, Joan’s son and daughter-in-law.
Joan had more than $30,000 worth of coins, all sold from a company called govmint.com, based in Eagan.
“The amount of coins that she had—(it was) bags upon bags of coins,” said Ashleigh and David Williamson. “And seeing what she was paying, that's when we said, 'Wait a second. This doesn't sound right.’”
So Joan's family went online and found forums and message boards full of complaints about govmint.com and its owner, Asset Marketing Services, or AMS, and, eventually, the name of attorney Bruce Steckler. Steckler’s Dallas law firm filed a class action lawsuit in Minnesota that says AMS business practices are "fraudulent" and "deceptive," designed to "take advantage of the elderly.” Steckler says Joan Williamson is one of hundreds of seniors who AMS targeted, saying the coins it sells are worth about half of what they cost. Steckler says one senior spent $4 million.
"They’re certainly not a good investment,” said Steckler. “Too many elderly people are finding their life savings caught up in these commemorative coins that have little or no value or less value than what they're being purchased for.”
That's also the findings of Joe Presti, a New Hampshire attorney who's been grading coins professionally since 1980. Presti says he's seen dozens of coins from AMS over many years, and agrees their value is typically about half of govmint's listed price.
“Evaluating portfolios from govmint.com, coins are worth 40 to 60 percent of their retail value,” Presti said.
The lawsuit alleges AMS operators called prospective buyers dozens of times to develop relationships that helped them then sell the coins. It says AMS never told buyers about the coins' true value, instead claiming their return could be 400%, and Steckler says once buyers caught on, AMS refused to refund them.
“They go to sell the coins and find out they've been duped,” Steckler said.
“If it's that great of a deal, why don't they want them back? Why don't they want the coins back?” said David Williamson. “That's a clue.”
None of this is news to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, which has gotten six complaints about AMS, and has twice punished the company for its sales methods and for avoiding taxes, fining it $30,000. A 2016 order for consent details how AMS employees called at least one prospective buyer more than 600 times in a year, urged seniors to buy coins even when they were hospitalized or medicated, and misrepresented the rarity and value of coins, implying to senior citizens they were a good investment.
"They have significant value. They're under priced. This is a great deal. They're extremely rare. Now is the time to buy,” said Steckler, naming what he says are some common AMS sales tactics.
Now, as the state urges Minnesotans to carefully research coins before purchasing, Steckler hopes buyers like Joan Williamson will get back not just the money they lost, but also the trust.
“The ideal outcome is for this to stop completely,” said Steckler. “Whatever is going on is inappropriate and needs to stop.”
“(AMS) emotionally kind of beat her up,” said Ashleigh Williamson. “And it broke my heart to see her get through that.”
An AMS spokesperson says the company “declines to comment on pending litigation.” The spokesperson says AMS “denies all allegations and intends to vigorously defend these lawsuits.”
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