( funny thing is all their screen shots are of sites that sell supplements with names designed to trick buyers into thinking they are real steroids )
Forget locker-room deals, stuffed gym bags and whispered words from a muscle bound man.
There’s a much simpler way to buy the kind of performance enhancing drugs that brought down the University of Waterloo’s football team – with a credit card and access to the internet.
Ordering steroids and human growth hormone through websites has become the single biggest way that those drugs are bought and sold, says the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
It’s a multimillion-dollar shadow industry that is highly illegal, and very hard to police. And it’s shipping its dangerous products to a mailbox near you.
Last year alone, agents with the Canadian Border Services Agency seized tens of thousands of dollars worth of steroids and growth hormone en route to mailing addresses in Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. Records of those seizures, obtained through federal Access to Information legislation, show that the postal service has become the new pipeline for dealers trying get their products past authorities to demanding customers.
Some of the seized local shipments were as small as two glass vials of testosterone and boldenone, a type of steroid typically used for horses – worth about $100. Others packages that caught the eye of X-ray scanners at the border agency’s mail processing facility in Toronto included 950 pills of methandienone, an anabolic steroid used to aid muscle growth.
A typical order to a Kitchener address was 500 yellow, diamond-shaped pills of Stanozolol – the steroid linked to sports doping scandals from Ben Johnson to Barry Bonds. Another seizure was of 500 Methanoplex tablets, a potent steroid that can cause estrogen-like effects in men.
The seizures – which experts say are just a drop in the bucket in the river flowing into Canada – show just how common ordering from steroid websites has become. With names like steroid.com, buysteroids.com and roidstore.com, they operate out in the open like any other online retailer. Except, of course, they’re illegal.
“This is a lot bigger than most people realize. It’s dirt cheap and it just comes in the mail,” said Dusty Payne, a Washington, DC-based expert on steroids with the U.S. drug enforcement agency. “The biggest way people are selling steroids now is through these websites.”
In Canada and the U.S., buying steroids without a prescription is against the law. But that hasn’t stopped hundreds of websites from popping up, offering huge inventories of the drugs at rock-bottom prices, no questions asked. The operators of these websites are constantly on the move, trying to avoid authorities. Some maintain dozens of domain names as a virtual front for their basement and garage laboratories, making them hard to trace.
Many websites buy their product in raw form from China, repackage it and ship it off to addresses across North America. If your order is stopped by customs officers, don’t sweat it, they say. They’ll simply send out another one.
The risk is worth it to these websites because the markup on the drugs is so high, sometimes as much as 30 times.
“A lot of people picked up on that. They figured out they can deal with China directly, and they’re going to ship me a ton of steroids for next to nothing, pennies almost,” Payne said.
Investigators say the online steroid industry is simply too big and too mobile to stop, and there are far more high-profile drugs that get more resources and public attention.
In 2007, American drug agents, working with Canadian police, busted 56 steroid labs across the U.S. It was the largest steroid crackdown is U.S. history, seizing $11.4 million worth of steroids, $6.5 million in cash and 242 kilograms of raw steroid powder from China.
But even that was just a bump in the road for the booming black market industry.
The problem is steroid and growth hormone use is no longer just the realm of professional athletes, body builders and wrestlers. Now, many users are just guys (and some girls) who just want to look strong with less effort.
Tens of thousands of these casual users are believed to be behind a spike in seizures of illegal mail-order steroids by Canada’s border officials. Last year, 1,920 courier and mail shipments of steroids were stopped at Canada’s three international mail processing centres. In 2008, the Canada Border Services Agency seized 1,624 shipments of foreign-made steroids that Canadians tried to have mailed into the country.
That’s not to speak of the volume of steroids and growth hormone sent through domestic mail warehouses, driven across the border or smuggled through airports. There were 2,609 seizures of steroids stopped at all international entry points last year, up from 926 in 2004, according to Canada’s border agency.
When there is a seizure in the mail, the sender, receiver and police are notified. The border agency holds onto the steroids until they can be destroyed by the RCMP or Health Canada.
But sending steroids through the mail is hardly a foreign enterprise. Plenty of these websites are based in Canada, too.
In 2008, police shut down a Kitchener-based mail-order steroids company run by Fernando Reis. It was Canada’s largest steroid seizure, a profitable business that used multiple storage units and several houses around town. Reis’s steroid shipping enterprise unravelled when a customs officer at the Canada Border Services Agency found a suspicious package that was addressed to Reis.
The package actually contained knockoff Viagra, but it unravelled a steroid and prescription drug operation that was selling “health and nutrition” supplements to customers around the world. Reis was sentenced to 22 months in jail and two years on parole.
Authorities, meanwhile, agree with officials around the disgraced Waterloo Warriors teams who say the problem of steroid and growth hormone abuse is far more widespread than most of us think.
“Steroid abuse is still a lot more significant than people realize. A lot more people do steroids than you think,” Payne said.
Health Canada is concerned about these websites, warning that there’s no guarantee you’re getting what you’re paying for. Some of these steroid labs produce their shipments in bathroom sinks and tubs, with absolutely no sanitary controls. Never mind that steroids can have severe side effects for users, from kidney disease to heart problems.
Not that you’ll find much negative news about steroids or growth hormone on any of those illegal websites. Or any information about the people behind them, either. Very few offer any way to contact the operators.
One company that does, Houston-based Anabolic Research LLC, the enterprise behind the Roid Store and Steroid. com websites, lists a phone number that is disconnected. Parkes said that’s typical.
“They can be really elusive, and it’s really hard to find the body behind the server,” Payne said. “They know how to stay hidden.”