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.
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.