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The price of gold hit an all-time high this spring, reaching nearly $1,250 an ounce. Gold got a boost from investors who were worried about the stability of the euro. In recent days, the price of gold has slumped as many people decide it's best not to invest in anything at all. Still, gold remains a popular investment, and that is more than you can say for stocks these days.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN: The price of gold is about a triple what it was just five years ago. It's a price that reflects worries about inflation, the decline in the value of the euro and general uneasiness. Gold is real. It's not paper money.

Ed Rice, of the University of Washington's Foster School of Business, adds that gold transcends cultural differences and is timeless.

Mr. ED RICE (University of Washington): It's a beautiful thing. It's a sign of prosperity. Or whatever people like about it, they have liked for hundreds of years, and so the thought is they'll continue to like it in the future.

KAUFMAN: Lots of us have gold, even if just a tiny bit. And some people are pawing through bottom drawers, jewelry boxes and other stashes, looking for items that could bring them instant cash.

Mr. WILLIAM SAXTON: I heard that gold was fairly high right now. So I figured I'd bring it in and see what I could get.

KAUFMAN: What William Saxton brought in to the Yuppie Pawn Shop in suburban Seattle was a 1945, two-peso gold coin. But most of what comes in to this upscale pawn store is gold jewelry.

Mr. BRIAN LURIE (Founder and Co-owner, Yuppie Pawn Shop): There's one. I don't like that one. Three. All right, four pieces of gold. What do you think that's worth?

KAUFMAN: Brian Lurie, founder and co-owner of the store, has handed me a fistful of 14-karat gold jewelry. I haven't a clue what it's worth. He puts the jewelry on a scale, and tells me he'd pay about $200 to $300 an ounce for this. It's a far cry from the commodity price but can be a tidy sum nonetheless.

Mr. LURIE: Every day, we do get a lot of calls. And people are shopping on the phone. That's when I go into the store - hey, well, what we're going to offer you is all going to be in the range of what we can melt it down for it. We're certainly not going to pay for the beauty of the gold.

KAUFMAN: Its meltdown value has been rising, and Lurie can often sell gold for twice as much as he pays for it. It represents a giant piece of his profits. Companies that urge consumers to mail in their gold for instant cash are chasing those profits as well.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) If money is your thing, sell your necklace or ring at...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Webuygold123.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) For the top dollar you can get, find us on the Internet at...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Webuygold123.

Mr. BEN POPKEN (Managing Editor, Consumerist): It's pretty typical of the kind of advertising and promotion that goes into this.

KAUFMAN: But Ben Popken, a managing editor at the Consumerist, a consumer's union website, is quick to suggest the problems in the mail-in gold industry are no laughing matter.

he companies - and we aren't singling out this one - encourage you to mail in your gold. They promise to weigh it, assess it, and then send you a check. But, says Popken...

Mr. POPKEN: Lowballing is rife within the mail-in gold industry. People get checks back for pennies on the dollar. They're thinking maybe, hey, I'll get 100, a couple hundred bucks, whatever, and they get back a check for $9.

KAUFMAN: Another problem, he says, is that some companies lure consumers in with a money-back guarantee, but don't give them enough time to reject the amount they were sent and get their gold back. Many companies have denied engaging in unfair practices, but the spotlight is likely to remain on those who are trying to capitalize on gold fever.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

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