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.