Dec. 17, 2004 -- This story was originally broadcast Dec. 17, 2004.
If you're shopping for gold jewelry -- or hoping to receive some -- you may end up paying for gold but getting glorified tinsel. How can you be sure you're getting the real thing?
"20/20" went on a gold-buying spree -- with hidden cameras rolling -- at jewelry stores and markets in Dallas, Maryland, Virginia and New York City and learned that if you're not careful you may end up buying "fools' gold."
In each store, "20/20" shoppers asked to look at gold jewelry that was at least 10 karat, and the clerks were quick to promise that it was. All of the clerks even agreed to put it in writing.
"20/20" asked for that guarantee, because anything less than 10 karats -- or about 42 percent real gold -- can't legally be sold as gold in this country.
"Anything under 10 karat in the United States is a pretty yellow metal, bit it's not gold," said Cecilia Gardener of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee. She says shoppers can easily be ripped off by watered-down gold.
"Just looking at a piece of jewelry, you're not going to be able to tell the difference between nine karat and 10 karat," Gardener said.
Under-Karating Is Common Problem
With sales of gold jewelry soaring -- reaching $16 billion in 2003 -- attorneys general in several states found under-karating to be a common problem. The worst cheating apparently occurs with the less expensive 10-karat and 14-karat pieces.
"Stores that scream out 'discount, discount, discount' -- these are the kinds of stores where we have found the problem really predominates," Gardener said.
"20/20" took its newly purchased gold to the American Assay and Gemological Office, the lab that does quality assurance checks on jewelry from Tiffany's. Lab workers tested the jewelry with the most sophisticated methods of both X-ray and fire assay, which involves melting down the jewelry to separate out the different metals. Good Housekeeping magazine oversaw the test and reviewed the results for good measure.
In addition to the gold "20/20" producers purchased, Michelle and Michael Williams of Delaware also offered up two gold bracelets they had bought on a recent vacation for testing.
They said they were told the jewelry was 14-karat gold, but when they got it home they had an unpleasant surprise.
"I was wearing the anklet and it started to make my leg a little black," Michelle Williams said.
After putting it to the test, "20/20" learned the anklet was only 4.8 percent gold. The gold wrist bracelet was 7.39 percent gold, 83 percent nickel, with a little bit of copper mixed in as well.
Both pieces were far below the minimum government standard for 10-karat gold. In fact, the large amount of nickel used in the jewelry may have caused Michelle Williams' allergic reaction. The bottom line: Their jewelry was nothing more than gold-plated.
"20/20" didn't fare much better with its jewelry purchases. "20/20" shoppers were cheated in more than half of the 22 jewelry stores they visited -- from Dallas to Maryland to New York.
At one jewelry shop in New York, a "20/20" shopper bought what was supposedly 10-karat bling-bling. Upon testing, it turned out to be only eight karat.
Down the street, salespeople at another shop had confidently sold "20/20" three gold charms, even guaranteeing them. But when "20/20" returned to the store and told the manager that one of the guaranteed charms was not real gold, he was unconcerned. He blamed the problem on his supplier.
At another New York jewelry store across town, "20/20" found not only under-karated gold, but also an apparent ignorance of the law. "20/20" had purchased three pendants there, and not one tested as legal gold -- each was one karat shy of 10. The manager didn't think that was a problem, saying she couldn't test every piece of jewelry.
Tips for Buying Gold
Fakes can fool your eye, but here are a few things you can do while buying gold:
Buy from someone you know or with a solid reputation.
Look for a store with a quality-assurance program that tests its own pieces for purity. You don't have to shop at Tiffany's to go for the real gold. Major department stores like Wal-Mart, Sears and JC Penney all have testing programs, too.
If the piece has a trademark, like Nike or a sports team logo, it must have a license stamp on the back. If the jewelry maker is willing to steal a trademark, experts say, they may be willing to short you on gold.
Look at the workmanship. If the edges are frayed, or it just looks cheap, it probably is under-karated.
And if you really want to make sure you've got legitimate gold, you can have your pieces X-rayed at a quality-assurance lab, like the one "20/20" used, for around $20.