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Collectors in Card Dispute With Teen

Internet: Soured deals for sports memorabilia may have helped SEC identify suspect in larger scam.

January 10, 2002|JERRY HIRSCH and JOSH FRIEDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Two sports memorabilia collectors frustrated over several soured deals may have helped the Securities and Exchange Commission identify a Mission Viejo teen as the primary suspect in a $1-million investment scam.

Cole A. Bartiromo, the 17-year-old who on Monday agreed to settle the SEC case without admitting or denying guilt, is an avid sports card collector who apparently offered to sell mint rookie cards of such stars as basketball great Michael Jordan via the Internet auction site EBay last year.

But according to two collectors, Bartiromo failed to deliver the cards in several instances and delayed or declined to return buyers' deposits. One of the collectors, Danny Matson of San Francisco, said the teen still owes him nearly $25,000.

The dispute appears to have tripped up Bartiromo, whom the SEC accuses of operating the "Invest Better 2001" program that fraudulently advertised "risk-free" returns of as much as 2,500%. The SEC said more than 1,000 participants worldwide sent money to Bartiromo, who under the alias "Tom Manning" claimed he had figured out how to make huge profits through sports betting.

In his settlement with the SEC, Bartiromo agreed to return $900,000 that he had deposited in an account at a Costa Rican casino.

Matson told The Times that federal investigators called him in November because they saw that he was registered as the purported administrator and billing contact for Invest Better 2001.

Matson told the investigators that he had never heard of the investment program and had no idea how his name became linked with the scheme. However, he said his curiosity was piqued when an SEC attorney asked whether he knew a Tom Manning.

Matson said he was in a dispute over an unraveled sports-card transaction on the Internet with an individual with a similar name--"Tim Marino."

Matson said he then called Ramon Sanchez, a San Jose sports card collector who Matson knew had previously run into trouble with Marino.

Trolling the Internet in October, Sanchez had come across a collector using the name "2001SeattleMariners2001" who was offering to sell a mint 1986 Michael Jordan rookie card for $8,000.

"I knew that this card usually sold for $12,000 to $13,000 and even though the auction had closed, I contacted the person and said if the deal fell through I would like to buy the card," Sanchez said.

On Oct. 12, he said he received an e-mail back from cbartiromo @yahoo.com offering to sell the card for $8,500 and instructing Sanchez to use PayPal, an Internet payment system, to transfer the money.

Sanchez said he also was directed to make the arrangements online through an instant messaging system with an individual using the screen name "Tigercards," who identified himself as Tim Marino, Bartiromo's associate.

Sanchez said he used PayPal to put up two $500 deposits to hold the Jordan card while he made arrangements to meet Marino and take delivery of the card.

Marino then directed Sanchez to use PayPal to make the second deposit into an online betting account at EFS Caribbean, Sanchez said. EFS Caribbean is an online currency converter and payment system for offshore casinos and other businesses.

Sanchez said he noticed that the account belonged to Danny Matson, a name unfamiliar to him. To be cautious, Sanchez wrote down the information about Matson in case a problem developed, he said.

By the end of October, the deal to purchase the Jordan card had fallen apart because, Sanchez said, he was never able to pin down a firm delivery time. Sanchez, an analyst at a San Jose computer company, said he then ran into trouble getting his deposits back from Marino.

Out of frustration, he said, he contacted Matson, thinking he also was a Marino associate.

Matson said he told Sanchez that Marino owed him thousands of dollars in deposits for deals that never took place. Sanchez said the pair started to comb the Internet and to e-mail EBay sports card customers to try to determine Marino's identity.

Toward the end of November the SEC called Matson asking about the Invest Better 2001 scheme, he said.

Armed with the suspicion that the unauthorized use of Matson's identity may have linked the activities of Marino and Manning, the pair started to e-mail customers of Invest Better 2001, asking what they knew about either individual.

They plugged the two names plus "Bartiromo" and "Tigercards" into an Internet search engine and discovered through an ESPN story broadcast last summer that Cole Bartiromo was a teenager with a keen interest in sports who said he and his father sold collectibles.

On ESPN, Cole Bartiromo and his father, John Bartiromo, described big-money dealings in 1996 Tiger Woods cards from Sports Illustrated's SI for Kids magazine.

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