One of the great fears of the Internet age is that conniving adults will use the Web to take advantage of unsuspecting kids. Yet as two recent incidents show, adults have plenty to fear from cyber-savvy youths. Last week the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Cole Bartiromo, 17, with bilking online investors out of nearly $1 million by promising "risk-free" profits of as much as 2,500%. Bartiromo, a senior at Trabuco Hills High in Mission Viejo, Calif., and an outfielder on the school baseball team, set up a website in which he claimed that huge, "fixed" returns would come from betting on sporting events through a team of experts. In less than two months Bartiromo, who identified himself by the pseudonym Tom Manning on the site, reportedly attracted more than 1,000 investors and at least $900,000. According to the S.E.C., Bartiromo, who could not be reached for comment, has agreed to pay back his victims.
They include Steven Daigle, 47, an engineer from Austin who ponied up $6,000 and says he told his own teenagers, who were suspicious of Bartiromo's scheme, "Sons, this is an investment, and this is how you make money in the world." Clearly Daigle and the other victims weren't the sharpest investors. Still, Bartiromo's was a sophisticated operation and his impressively designed Web page belied the fact that he was an under-age rookster.
A high-quality website is a trait Bartiromo's scam had in common with the far less insidious case of O.J. Mayo, 14, a seventh-grade basketball star at Rose Hill Christian High in Ashland, Ky. Mayo has launched ojmayo.org, a promotional page so polished it resembles a professional media guide bio. Built by a friend, the site includes Mayo's stats (he averages better than 20 points a game), nuggets of personal info (he likes chicken pieces) and film clips and newspaper stories about him—none of which can escape a recruiter's notice. "Actually it might make colleges worry that he's egotistical and hard to coach," says high school hoops analyst Bob Gibbons of Mayo's site. Gibbons had his own encounter with an Internet rascal several years ago, when a 14-year-old Florida boy launched a site touting himself as an evaluates of high school basketball players. Though the boy had no experience in the trade, he emerged as a competitor to Gibbons. "It was a relief when he got a little older," says Gibbons. "He hit puberty and got other interests."