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Son, We Need to Talk

January 13, 2002

So now we know that sending a teenager to his room can be dangerous to investors around the world. The Securities and Exchange Commission alleges that a 17-year-old Mission Viejo high school senior named Cole A. Bartiromo ran an elaborate Internet investment scheme that successfully and cleverly defrauded at least 1,000 adult investors out of more than $1 million. That's probably more than most of us made for mowing lawns or baby-sitting during those fabled teen years. You know, when cute little people who don't mind public hugs mature into emotional mutants on a hormone-driven thrill ride where the spoken vocabulary ranges from a convincingly dense "Huh?" to a firmly dismissive "In a minute."

Yes, yes, our child's adolescence is revenge and well-deserved justice for what we put our own parents through in those grandly awkward ages 13 through 19. On teen planets nothing is so small that it can't be blown into a volcanic argument or life-altering disappointment. But what an awful responsibility now to put on parents: The realization that grounding a teenager to his bedroom while trying to instill some behavioral accountability may actually be enabling a global swindling operation with mounting deposits in Costa Rica.

Honey, why are so many men in dark suits with identical Chevrolets and badges ringing our doorbell? And what are all those satellite TV trucks doing on our street?

Parents might be frightened--and maybe strangely also a little proud or encouraged--to think that a closely related, once-diapered creature incapable of remembering a school lunch or rinsing a bathroom sink has clandestinely learned to play a worldly, eloquent Internet pitchman amid a mass of empty Dr Pepper cans that was supposed to be taken out last week. And that he's using an Internet pseudonym, a dexterous digital mind and a simple computer keyboard like a fine musician to play on an international stage to some universal human traits like hope and greed.

Is it conceivable that recent children who still seem thrilled with Christmas gifts and take a facial pimple census every morning are privately paying $4,000 e-mail bonuses to gullible trial investors in England and New Zealand with the well-placed confidence and savoir-faire that this will prompt the adults to fork over $27,000 more? No, our son isn't here; he's at baseball practice, we think.

If widespread, this teen tycoon phenomenon could forever upset the parent-child imbalance of power, not to mention forcing allowance adjustments. The SEC investigation, we hope, will find this to be an isolated case. The teen promised to return more than $900,000. We also hope he didn't say, "In a minute."

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