Just read this on SSB, was pretty interesting to me.
Journey To The Underworld
When is a computer part not a computer part? When itís used to conceal $370 worth of steroids ordered from an underground website in Spain.
November 6, 2005
By PAUL DOYLE, Courant Staff Writer
The word "steroids" produces more than 5 million responses to a Google search.
The words "buy steroids" bring 762,000 references on the Internet.
The domain names are brazen (legalsteroids.com), boastful (HouseOfMuscle.com), authoritative (Anabolicshop.com) and amusing (littleguy-gotbig.com). Of the seemingly endless list of websites that include the phrase "buy steroids," many turn out to be a passing mention or a duplicate site. But I don't need to venture deep to find a virtual anabolic mall.
The very first site spit out in my Google search is juicinjoe.com, which includes the tag line "Juice for the average joe." I'm a relative neophyte when it comes to navigating the cyber steroid world, but with the help of a specially provided virtual mentor, one "Trevor Gladstone," it takes me all of 15 minutes to learn how to purchase steroids on the Internet.
Trevor's steroids sales pitch is a shtick along the lines of Ron Popeil hawking a Veg-O-Matic.
"My name's Trevor Gladstone and I've been safely buying steroids online for five years now. On this website you'll learn where to find the most recent verified online suppliers so you won't get caught sending a scammer your hard-earned money. I want you to take my Underground Tour so I can tell you in private about all the hard-to-find sites all the `Big Dawgs' are using. Remember, it's all Free!"
Later he writes, "Steroids have literally changed my life! ... Steroids have made nothing but positive changes in almost every aspect of my life."
The "wimp was drained and replaced by a stud." He turns away girls, he says, and his confidence has never been better.
Remember the skinny kid who got sand kicked in his face? He's now trolling the Internet and ready to order anabolic steroids.
This is Charles Atlas for the computer generation.
These days, all a scrawny kid needs is a reliable Internet connection, a handful of cash and an address.
But instead of getting Charles Atlas' workout routine, the modern-day kid gets vials of Winstrol, Dianabol, Deca Durabolin and Sustanon. He gets steroids used by world-class athletes, the bodybuilder down the street or the veterinarian caring for a sick horse.
The testosterone-based drugs come as injectables or pills or creams. They do work. They do add muscle mass, but the dangers of unsupervised use - especially by adolescents who already have raging hormones - is obvious.
But I'm not considering the health risk. I'm dipping my toe into the Internet's steroid underworld. I want to actually buy the drugs, but I also want to experience the culture, learn the shorthand, imagine it all from a nervous teenager's perspective. And I need guidance.
Trevor promises to provide a list of scammers and direct me to a reputable seller. If I provide an e-mail address, I can take his underground tour.
He soon shows me how to create an online persona - to register on certain sites and post on certain message boards that will give me credibility when I go to make a buy. Trevor invites me to "explore the dark side" and go "where the big boys play." By the time I "submerge myself underground," I have found my first seller, alinshop.org. But, as a "newbie," I still have questions.
Where will the steroids be sent?
How will I pay?
What are the legal risks?
If I'm an inexperienced teenager, the answers are easy to find on - where else? - the Internet. For the next few days, I immerse myself in the Internet steroids community. I'll read message board postings, I'll find advice and warnings from doctors, lawyers and athletes.
I'll be in a position to purchase the drugs without anyone questioning my age.
All from the privacy of my home computer.
Routes To Black Market
Eventually, I will find a multitude of direct routes to the black market. But early on, I find myself drawn into the seedy subculture of the online steroid user. I want to get educated by the frontline users (as opposed to "Trevor"), learn the users' lingo, understand why they started with steroids and why they stopped. I want the intimate details of the rush, and of the side effects the users all fear.
I plunge into the steroid underworld. I loiter on message boards, lingering mostly on steroid.com. My first post is vague and innocuous: "Just registered after lurking for a few weeks. Pretty new to this and looking for advice."
Within two minutes a member posts, "Well you found the right place. ... Welcome." Another says, "Welcome to AR, bro." ("AR" is shorthand for steroid.com's message board, "Anabolic Review.")
After a few more welcomes, I wait two days and post again. This time I say I am looking for general advice on buying and the names of sites that sell.
There are two responses. One poster says he is also looking for advice. The other says, simply, welcome. But no names of sites. A few days later, I ask again, a bit more directly. Immediately, I am ambushed by a gang of guys whose online profiles include pictures of bodybuilders, presumably them. They commiserate about their percentage of body fat and weight-lifting regimens, discuss subtle differences in their steroids and the dynamics of each cycle of drugs.
They are not planted before their keyboards in search of steroids. They have their steroids.
One poster screeches, "Are you serious?"
Another warns that scammers will target me. Another refers me to a link for the Oasis Longevity & Rejuvenation Center in Delray Beach, Fla., which bills itself as selling "doctor-prescribed steroids."
And another poster asks that the thread be deleted.
Soon, it is.
The lesson? Don't stumble into this Internet steroid village, the one populated by real live users, in search of a seller. The people who post and chat here are not novices. They are protective of their community and suspicious of outsiders.
And if you're on the fence, concerned about the risks, or you don't know how or where to buy, you are an outsider. Spend just a few minutes in the community and you learn that this is an insulated, guarded place.
Of course, it has been called worse. Penn State professor and steroid expert Charles Yesalis has said that other than pedophilia, he has never witnessed a behavior as secretive as steroid use.
But in the Internet neighborhood I've stumbled upon, the steroid users seem most concerned with policing their universe. So the first rule: don't talk about where you got your supply.
If you do, you will be ignored. Or worse, you will be banished.
Don't ask for sources, don't give sources and don't list websites.
On the Anabolic Review site, the system administrator leaves a thread titled, "Want To Buy Steroids??!!!"
Click on it and inside, the administrator warns users not to buy steroids from anyone on or mentioned on the website. There are warnings about underground laboratories and scam artists.
There are pages of messages about the "newbies" who come looking for advice. I also find a thread under the "New Members" forum in which someone with the screen name buckeyefootball4 asks if the site anabolicshop.com is real.
Like me, the poster is smoked out within minutes.
"Delete this, bro," he is told.
Another poster asks, "Do people not read the rules?"
Still another philosophizes, "Damn newbies, we were all there once, so excited to find this awesome [stuff] that we post before reading rules."
The rules are on the front page of steroid.com, a site that boasts 41,512 members - including me. There are links to virtually every steroid question, including side effects, legal issues and details on steroid cycles. Under the "About Steroid.com" section, there is a telling passage:
"We do not in any way promote, recommend or encourage the use of anabolic steroids without a doctor's suppervision. We do not buy/sell anabolic steroids and do not recommend buying or selling anabolic steroids. ... Steroid laws are different throughout the world, but here in the United States, anabolic steroids are illegal without a prescription."
So newbies like me should consider ourselves warned. Newbies, of course, refers to newcomers. That one is easy to translate, but it takes me a little time to decipher the rest of the slang.
I learn that "gear" is a word for steroids and "juice" is the term for using steroids. I later find a list of slang terms on the EliteFitness.com forum that not only provides the abbreviations for steroids (Winny is Winstrol-V, DBOL is Dianabol), but also provides the shorthand for communicating in this world. (MPB equals male pattern baldness, BB is bodybuilder or bodybuilding, OTC is over the counter.)
The rest of the definitions are common Internet chat terms, such as LOL (laugh out loud), BTW (by the way) and IMO (in my opinion).
The shorthand lulls me. After hours of lurking, these sites seem innocuous and pedestrian. These could be Red Sox fans ruminating on the Sons of Sam Horn or teenage friends Instant Messaging one another on a school night.
Only this community is discussing the use of an illegal substance.
And they discuss it in depth. These are experienced users. They are passionate and protective, even advising young posters to hold off until they are at least 21.
That sort of code of honor exists on the Anabolic Forum website. Those that identify themselves as teens are told by posters to wait until they are in their 20s before they use.
But if I am, say, 17, and looking for general information about steroids, I could find everything I need to know. The debate about age aside, the health risks that are often reported in the mainstream media are rebutted on the message boards.
I discover there are enough teenagers - or people who say they are teenagers - posting to support the notion that this is where they would turn for facts. The students at Hand High School in Madison who were arrested earlier this year and charged with possession of illegal steroids say they bought the drugs in Mexico. But they did their research on the Internet.
So if I am 17 and wondering about the health risks of using steroids, there is plenty of reassurance from the Internet community to sway me. And if I am wondering about the legal risks, there are plenty of postings by lawyers who promise I can purchase steroids over the Internet without facing jail time.
For all I learned on my detour through the steroid users' subculture, the virtual "Trevor" is still the only one to have given me the name of an online seller. I decide to go back to where I started. Google.
Now that I've been properly educated, I find I have an eye for scammers. I hit "buy steroids" again, but this time I can tell which responses look reputable, so to speak - sites that might actually send me steroids instead of just taking my money.
I settle on two - vipershop.org and marssel4bolex.com, to add to alinshop.org. I do a little research and find them mentioned in a forum at anabolex.com. They are recommended in an "Overseas Pharmacies Connection" forum.
When I register on the sites, there is no screening for age.
At vipershop.org, I provide an e-mail address, an address and phone number. I am immediately approved.
At marssel4bolex.com, I provide an e-mail address and a city of residence. Again, I am immediately approved.
At alinshop.org, I provide an e-mail address and answer a few questions about where I found the site and what message boards I frequent. The next day, I am approved.
I return to the sites and open my shopping cart. It's as easy as navigating through Amazon.com. The vipershop site has links to "My Account" and "Cart Contents" and "Checkout." There are pictures of the steroid, the price and a "Buy Now!" button.
There are also links to injectables, orals and special batches. The marssel4bolex site includes a link for "specials," which seem to be sale items.
Both sites use the tag line, "Let's See What We Have Here."
A coincidence? Or are these sites operated by the same guy?
I'm not sweating such details. I'm ready to fill my cart.
I consult with steroid experts who know what young users are ordering. I also talk to a source who was once a competitive bodybuilder and is versed in the steroid world. I ask what the average novice would buy.
"Kids will want Sustanon," he says. "They think it's best to get `jacked.' It's the cheapest and among the dirtiest, thus, with the dearth of money at that age, that's what they usually look for."
So the first item on the shopping list is the injectable Sustanon.
I'm told it "blows up" the upper body, which is appealing to young bodybuilders. I'm also told it can affect liver toxicity, especially when overused.
Next on my list is Deca Durabolin, a steroid popular with track athletes. It's an injectable and preferred by athletes because it is "clean," which means it leaves your body within a week.
Winstrol tablets, which are also a veterinary drug used for cats, will be third on my list. Like Deca, Winstrol gets in and out of your system quickly. It is also a brand name for the steroid stanozolol, which Rafael Palmeiro reportedly tested positive for.
Another veterinary drug, the injectable Equipoise, is popular because it is cheap and will give bodybuilders definition.
My steroid source also suggests any of the steroids labeled simply as testosterone, which is the chemically reproduced male hormone that is the basis of all anabolic steroids. He also points me to Clenbuterol, a drug often selected by first-time users because it builds bulk quickly.
"I've seen guys use it and they get real puffy, real fast," he says. "But let me tell you, if you misuse it, it will wreak havoc on your body. ... Of course, you can say that about any of these."
So I have a list. I troll through my three sellers' websites and find other drugs. I'm focusing on what a kid might buy and the names of the most recognizable drugs - the steroids that big name athletes have been snagged using. Olympian Ben Johnson was caught using stanozolol in 1988. The drug was back in the news when Palmeiro was snagged this year. In his book "Juiced," Jose Canseco wrote that Palmeiro used Winstrol, otherwise referred to with the almost cuddly nickname "Winny" in the cyber steroid world.
But the choices of the elite athletes are almost irrelevant. I've talked to a former steroid user who says kids who are tempted to use are not necessarily influenced by the likes of Canseco. They are often undersize kids with low self-esteem, more focused on getting a date than playing professional sports.
These are kids who read muscle magazines or research their steroid choices on the Internet. So I'll select a random sampling of the most common drugs. Users buy a mixture based on a cycle, taking one specific type after another. My order, though, will be more haphazard.
I set up post office boxes. In Manchester, I show a piece of mail and an ID. In Hartford, I show an ID. In New Haven, an editor at The Courant opens a box with no ID, no questions asked.
We use P.O. boxes to protect ourselves, but we are conscious of having this process mirror a teenager or young adult buying steroids online.
Would a kid living at home set up a P.O. box? For $125, he could get a six-month rental of an oversize box. If he is old enough - over 18 - it would be easy to rent a box.
But in houses where the parents are working and a kid retrieves the mail, wouldn't it be easier to use a home address? Securing a P.O. box might be an unnecessary step in mimicking a teenager.
Still, the boxes are set up.
Three addresses and three names. I have my list of steroids to buy and I have cash.
Once I buy, I will wire the money through Western Union.
Now comes the easy part.
I'm an old-school consumer. The e-commerce experience has never appealed to me because I'm a tactile shopper: I need to hold an item up to the light, I need to study it, cradle it or try it on.
But when I make the random website purchase, I understand the allure of Internet shopping. Type your name and address, click through a few pages and your purchase arrives a few days later.
It's easy and quick and anonymous. No human interaction required.
It's the perfect method for buying something illegal.
That might be why I never pause to consider what I am purchasing. It is as simple as ordering a book or CD, moving from one site to the next as my order grows.
I order $68 worth of steroids from marssel4bolex.com, which has no minimum purchase. The purchases are well-known drugs - 200 milligrams of Deca Durabolin, 250 milligrams of Sustanon, 250 milligrams of Testosterone Enanthate and 100 tablets of Anabol.
With shipping, my order is $88. I have it sent to the box in Manchester. The vipershop.com order will go to New Haven. Vipershop.com has a minimum purchase of $350, so I am required to make bigger purchases.
That is not difficult, though. The prices are higher on this site.
I order 100 milligrams of Androbolic, otherwise known as Equipoise, a veterinary drug used on cattle to promote growth. I am reminded of the real purpose of this drug when I see a picture of the vial - there's a cow on the bottle.
I also order 200 milligrams of Deca Durabolin, two 250 milligrams vials of Sustanon, 50 tablets of Winstrol and 5 milligrams of Bionabol (also known as Dianabol, or D-Bol in steroids circles).
With $80 for shipping, my order is $450.
My e-mail confirmations for the first two orders arrive immediately. They include instructions for wiring money through Western Union. In e-mails that arrive later the same day, contact names and cities are included.
That's when I learn these purchases are coming from Spain and Poland. Vipershop.com e-mails me Western Union contact information - I should send money to Esteban Naveso Campos in Madrid. Marssel4bolex.com e-mails me the contact name of Slawomir Glinka in Warsaw.
The third purchase, at alinshop.org is for $238. I buy 200 milligrams of Testosterone Cypionate, 50 tablets of Clenbuterol, 100 milligrams of Masabol and 50 milligrams of Anapolon. Shipping is $40, bringing my order to $278.
On alinshop's order and payment information page, I am guided through the process of sending via Western Union. I've never wired money, so this is a revelation. And if I have a tinge of trepidation about sending money for the purchase of an illegal drug, I get a word of advice from my seller:
"If Western Union asks you about purpose of sending money tell them that they are for your relatives (family) or for a friend in need (they don't allow sending money for commercial purposes)."
I receive a contact name and destination - Ivan Jeju of Kishinev, Moldova. So my friend in need lives in Moldova.
Moldova? Once part of Romania, later part of the Soviet Union, it has been an independent country since 1991. Located between Romania and Ukraine, it is the poorest country in Europe.
After I place my order at alinshop, I receive a confirmation e-mail from someone named Michaela. A few minutes later another e-mail arrives with an order number.
The e-mail ends with the tagline, "I greatly appreciate your business! ... Best Regards, Michaela."
She might be polite and customer service conscious, but Michaela never asks for my age.
Under the Terms and Conditions on alinshop.org, there is a list of disclaimers that includes the line "I am over 18 year old."
Under the Conditions of Use page on Marssel4bolex.com, the first line - in bold print - says "YOU MUST BE 18+ YEARS TO ORDER."
The Vipershop.org Conditions of Use include no mention of age, but there is this disclaimer: "It lies on the purchaser to use them under the guidance of a physician."
The links to these conditions and disclaimers are not easily accessible, though. At no point in the buying process am I stopped. I'm not asked to provide a date of birth.
And I could have completed my purchase in about the time it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn. It seems too easy, but I remember that anabolic steroids are legal in the places where Ivan Jeju, Esteban Naveso Campos and Slawomir Glinka do business.
How can our law enforcement track the activity of Ivan, Esteban and Slawomir?
They can't. But they can catch me.
That's something for me to consider as I wire money around the world.
Money Around World
Cash in hand, I find three Western Union stations at supermarket customer service desks. I provide names, cities and countries, and the money is off to Spain, Poland and Moldova.
This is the pedestrian part of the process. There are Western Union stations at almost all convenience stores and supermarkets, and they are often staffed by kids.
I deal with polite women at my stops. Aside from asking just where Moldova is - not with a suspicious tone, though - they don't pause. They take my money and provide a 10-digit money transfer control number and thank me for my patronage.
Ivan Jeju's warnings are unfounded. I'm never asked where I'm sending the money and I'm never required to invent a story about my sick cousin in Moldova or my penniless friend in Poland.
I e-mail the money transfer control numbers and monitor the Western Union website. Within two days, the money has been collected from all three accounts.
It's probably too soon, but I quickly begin checking the P.O. boxes in Manchester and Hartford. I don't expect to find packages in the boxes, but I'm using the visits as dry runs. I'm casing the post offices, looking for security cameras, signs of law enforcement, or any indicators that someone - anyone - is on to me.
These rehearsals are supposed to put me at ease. They don't.
My heart races when I see a small, padded white envelope sitting in my oversize P.O. box in Manchester, less than three weeks after I had placed my order.
I grip the envelope, close the box, stare at the floor and walk to the door. My instinct is to run. I stop myself and walk slowly. Awkwardly slow, because I am sure I am being watched.
Outside, I increase my pace. In my car, I study the package. It's a 6Ĺ- by 8Ĺ-inch cardboard envelope. The name on the return address is Daniel Slusarek from Warszawa, Poland. Under the return address is a blue stamp with the words "Priorytet Prioritaire," (Priority Mail).
I stuff the envelope under the passenger's seat and return home. I fear being pulled over for a traffic violation, so I drive with the carefulness of a student driver, obeying the speed limit on the side streets of Manchester and idling at every stop sign until intersections are clear.
When I reach my driveway, I exhale and open the envelope while sitting in my car. There are six vials wrapped in mounds of ordinary plastic wrap and another mass of plastic wrap holds 100 pink tablets.
In The Courant sports department, it takes 20 minutes to remove the wrap and reveal vials labeled with the steroids Deca Durabolin, Sustanon and Testosterone Enanthate.
The pills? They are pink and pentagon shaped, which is how an Anabol (or more commonly known as Dianabol) tablet looks. But for all I know, these could be Flintstones vitamins cut into the shape of an Anabol tablet.
Whatever substances we possess, I'm feeling a sense of relief. One of the orders has been successfully delivered without as much as a sniff from the authorities.
Then I hit a snag.
`Your Venomous Friend'
An e-mail from vipershop.org informs me that the preferred method of shipping does not deliver to a post office box. The e-mail - ending with "Regards, your venomous friend" - asks for a personal or business address.
Somehow, I missed this under the terms and conditions. And the folks at vipershop.org didn't alert me to this when I placed my order.
I e-mail and ask if there is another shipping method that will deliver to a box. No, I'm told, express courier is the safest method. Besides, injectables must go to an address.
Send an address, I'm told. And there is no polite closing from my venomous friend.
I send the residential address of a Courant editor. Six days later, I receive an e-mail saying the order has been shipped. The following week, a DHL delivery truck arrives. The package, in a yellow, red and white DHL shipping envelope, is signed for.
In the upper-left corner of the envelope is a red sticker that says, "The contents of this package have been checked by a DHL staff member for security purposes in the presence of the shipper."
There is a DHL stamp and a signature - presumably from the "client" or shipper.
The package is addressed to the name on the order. But above the name is a company name - Critical Control Point LTD. The return address is a company called Procompparts, Calle Isla de Menorca 19 of Toledo, Spain.
Critical Control Point LTD, and Procompparts.
Sounds like two legitimate businesses, but they are names invented by my venomous friend.
There is also a triplicate commercial invoice on the package. The invoice says the package includes a computer part known as a LINKSYS WAG54G ADSL GATEWAY.
The part, according to the invoice, is being returned from Spain because it is the "wrong model." It has a value of $98.
At a glance, the invoice and package seem ordinary. A wrong electronic device was delivered to a company and is being returned.
The contents are supposed to be a manual data switch, a computer peripheral. I'm thinking this is an elaborate facade to hide the contents.
Inside is a plain, brown corrugated box and inside that box is another 6Ĺ-by-6Ĺ-inch cardboard box for a manual data switch. The company name on the box is Addison Technology and the data switch seems to be exactly what is listed on the packing order. I find the website for Addison Technology - it is a real company, based in The Netherlands.
The ruse just keeps getting better.
Inside is, well, a data switch. Covered in clear bubble wrap, it is a nondescript computer device. No vials of steroids, no pills.
First, I'm deflated.
Then I'm angry, then disappointed, and ultimately, confused.
If this is a scam, why not send a brick? Or better yet, send nothing.
Take my money and don't respond to my e-mails. There is no recourse for the customer. There is no way I can track down my venomous friend. So why send me a computer part worth almost $100?
I wonder if my venomous friend runs a computer business and sells steroids on the side. Maybe he mixed up my order with a package marked for Critical Control Point. Maybe the president of Critical Control Point is opening a package of steroids and wondering where his data switch is.
I am about to e-mail vipershop.org and ask about my order. Before I can, I find an e-mail waiting for me.
I sent your order last Friday by DHL .... it seems that you have received it without problems ... (according DHL website)
Take care when you "open" the "DATA SWITCH" and remove the stuff carefully, help you with a cutter.
Thanks for your patience,
I will, always, try to offer you my best service.
your venomous friend, Viper.
Open the data switch? The light goes off in my head. I pick up the data switch and shake it. I don't know what a data switch is or what it is supposed to do, but I'm certain it should not have liquid inside.
I remove four screws and pull off the cover revealing a bundle of steroids hidden amid wires. The steroids are tightly packed in a thicker plastic wrap and securely glued to the inside of the data switch.
I am stunned by the lengths this dealer went through to pass steroids through Customs. My venomous friend attached a bogus company to the buyer's name, included a bogus invoice and hid the steroids in an actual electronic device.
And think of the subtle details - saying the part is returned as the "wrong model" on the invoice, packing the data switch in its original box.
Imagine this package arriving at the home of a 17-year-old. Mom or dad sees or maybe even signs for the package. Maybe they open it and find a data switch.
The kid bought a computer part, they figure.
So now I have two steroid orders in hand. One arrived in a plain white envelope, the other in an elaborate disguise.
The third? I am told in an e-mail from Michaela at alinshop.org that my order has been shipped but might have been seized by Customs. If I get a letter from U.S. Customs, I should simply send a copy of it to alinshop, Michaela writes, and they'll refill the order. No charge.
Weeks pass and my P.O. box is empty. No steroids from alinshop, no seizure letter from Customs.
While I wait, my focus turns to the needles and syringes. If I am mimicking the process of a kid buying steroids, I need the tools to inject our steroids.
Another Internet search - "buy syringes" - leads me to anabolic-power.com, another site specializing in anabolic steroids. This site includes links to instructions on how to inject and common mistakes made by steroid users. (No.1? Excessive doses).
Buying the needles and syringes over the Internet is illegal, but it's another smooth process. I'm supposed to provide a doctor's prescription. But I simply wire $49.99 to Hilda Silva Cabrera in Toluca, Mexico, and my package arrives in two weeks. I receive two yellow envelopes, one containing 15 syringes with needles, the other containing nine. The goods are wrapped in aluminum foil and bubble wrap.
The name on the return address is Gloria Gonzalez Martinez of San Pablo Autopan, Mexico.
Two months pass. The third shipment finally arrives, but only after I provide my friend Michaela at alinshop.org with a residential address (this time, that of another sports editor). The contents are as ordered, sent in a white, padded envelope, postmarked Bucharest.
My journey to the underworld is complete.