The Worst Way to Buy Silver

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Precious metal investors take comfort in knowing their bullion has virtually zero counter-party risk. For example, a silver bar won’t go bankrupt amid an accounting scandal or default as turmoil rattles financial markets. A silver bar also won’t disappoint on earnings, cut its dividend, or hire an incompetent CEO. However, these perks only apply once you receive physical delivery.

Lawrence McWhinnie, my father, recently found this out the hard way. He ordered 50 ounces of silver bars from Northwest Territorial Mint (NWTM) on June 17, 2015. Premiums were low, and he was looking for some new shiny bullion to play with. When he told me about the purchase, I cringed. This particular mint has one of the worst reputations in the industry when it comes to receiving orders in a reasonable manner.

Judging by online reviews, it might be faster to get your hands on some silver by prospecting in your own backyard than ordering from Northwest Territorial Mint. The company earns only one-and-a-half out of five stars on Yelp, with 23 reviewers voicing their experiences. The majority of reviewers encountered drawn-out shipping times and poor customer service. Complaints date as far back as July 2013.

Tim P. from Oroville, California writes, “There’s a first time and a last time for everything, and sometimes they are the same time. I wish I had seen the negative reviews prior to sending them money that has now been tied up for months. It almost makes me wonder if there isn’t a level of gaming they are doing with taking money, holding it for months while sending you notices that you can sell it back to them, and never actually having to deliver any product for the majority of sales.”

Similar experiences are found at the Better Business Bureau. Out of 161 complaints closed with the BBB in the last three years, 112 were classified under delivery issues. Thirty-four customers left written reviews, with 29 noting negative experiences. Horror stories on the BBB site include customers who are still waiting on their orders after paying 4-6 months earlier. After waiting for over four months, one person requested a refund, which then took another two months to receive.

While some disappointed customers are bound to be found in any business, a recent employee review on Glassdoor suggests this kind of practice is common. An anonymous employee writes, “If you can put your ethics on the sidelines while the owner of this business has his minions communicate outright lies as to why their orders are delayed, this company is for you. Do you really think that all the order delays are due to material shortages, backup in production, machine breakage, etc.? Do you not think that Ross (CEO) isn’t using your capital to trade in commodity markets to make money off of OPM? Absolutely disgusting!”

On February 6, 2008, Washington state Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against Northwest Territorial Mint for “misrepresentation of delivery date, unfair refund policy, and failure to respond to consumer complaints.” At the time of the filing, the Attorney General’s Office, the BBB, and the Federal Trade Commission received a total of 82 consumer complaints detailing the Defendants’ delays in delivery. A settlement was reached in 2008, requiring Northwest Territorial Mint to pay $20,000 in civil penalties and nearly $38,000 in state attorneys’ fees and costs.

Ironically, Northwest Territorial Mint says its policy “is to ship orders promptly after you have properly paid us.” The company is quick to tout its relationship with the military and Boy Scouts of America, but it’s also eager to inform customers that they can sell their undelivered, delayed orders back to Northwest Territorial Mint, at current market value. If prices have fallen since the initial order, this could result in customers losing money without even taking possession.

My father faced this scenario. After already waiting about two months for his order, Northwest Territorial Mint sent its infamous email claiming an “unprecedented high volume of orders,” and said his order might take an additional 30 days to ship, but if he didn’t want to wait, he could sell his silver back to the mint at current market prices. Of course, that meant taking a loss on his silver purchase without even getting to play with it, arguably the worst way to buy silver.

He replied by informing the mint he filed a dispute with his credit card company. The next day, Northwest Territorial Mint shipped his silver. On September 11, 2015, my father finally received his order, nearly three months after initially ordering it. “The bars are beautiful,” my father said. “It’s a shame it took so long. I’ll never order from them again.”

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of online bullion dealers or places to check reviews. In addition to sites like Yelp and the BBB, lists customer testimonials from major bullion dealers like Provident Metals, Texas Precious Metals, APMEX, and several others. As with anything else in life: buyer beware.

Follow Eric on Twitter @Mr_Eric_WSCS

More from Money & Career Cheat Sheet: