Commercial Relationships in the Online Steroid Market

by Anthony Roberts

Online pharmacies, generally speaking, have a bad reputation for scamming customers by selling counterfeit goods, or not delivering goods at all. Depending on who you ask, they can be the virtual equivalent of street-level narcotics dealers. But the online market for image and performance enhancing drugs functions very differently from either of these two (more traditional) examples. This may seem intuitive simply by examining the usage habits of someone injecting testosterone (a weekly or bi-weekly shot for 10-12 weeks followed by an off period) versus someone injecting heroin (whenever they run out and can scrape together the cash), or even taking Cialis (“when the mood strikes” according to commercials). But despite the intuitive nature of this observation, a recently published study aimed to further examine and articulate the buyer/seller relationship for IPEDs…and made some interesting and strikingly accurate observations.

If you’re not part of this subculture, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find a more accurate snapshot of these types of relationships in the IPED world; it’s likely the best academic effort in existence, and light years ahead of Pope et al.’s sophomoric and judgmental treatment of the subject matter.

The first is the difference between the standard online drug supplier (an online pharmacy) and the ones making their living in the IPED world. The former are described as predatory in that their customers make purchases believing that they are patronizing a legitimate pharmacy operating legally. Pictures of men in lab coats and sterile environments dominate these types of operations. But in the steroid world, the equivalent website would have pictures of bodybuilders in posing briefs and gyms of dubious hygienic standards.

And while online pharmacies may utilize an equally antiseptic purchasing environment with little to no interaction, online IPED sources invest in building a trust relationship between themselves and their customer base. This typically includes the offer of discreet delivery services and “reducing the risk of selling poor quality IPEDs by testing products before selling them.” In many cases, according to this study, customers knew that a particular steroid brand was actually an underground lab, and not a proper pharmaceutical company.

In terms of the high-quality IPED-selling websites, they not only offered specific product information, but sixty percent also featured more general information regarding steroids (such as potential side-effects and how to deal with them, post-cycle advice, best practice for injections, etc…) and ten percent offered training and nutritional advice. Unfortunately, advice doled out by even the most well-meaning of the steroid community (here, not only sources but also denizens of steroid discussion forums), may be of poor quality and recommend unnecessarily high starting doses for anabolics and other IPEDs.

Quality IPED-selling website operators incorporate several strategies to attract,satisfy and retain customers. It’s not a stretch to imagine that accurately dosed and sterile products are part of this strategy (customers with injection abscesses aren’t going to be repeat customers). Quality online dealers adopted the more traditional offline characteristics of social suppliers, or “social supply business models.” While it could be a mistake to regard this as altruism per se, setting motivations aside, it results in a better experience for the customer and a more steady and consistent supply of customers for the dealer.

Quote 1: From Cited Study

Non-quality sites, run by unknown entities, on the other hand, were either “ghost sites” where no product was shipped after payment, or products with little to no active ingredient were shipped. Often, these sites were owned and operated by those outside of the subculture. In addition, so-called ghost websites didn’t remain live for very long, indicating a reliable method for the would-be IPED buyer to quickly and accurately determine which sites were high quality (e.g. those with a longstanding reputation, ample contact with purchasers, and a robust level of accessible information).

Quote 2: From Cited Study

Outside of visual examination of the source website, steroid users reported the use of “personal rules” that helped to identify better-quality IPEDs, including the dissemination of posts on steroid forums. This greatly reduced their chance of being cheated by a scam or ghost website.
Legitimate online dealers therefore make use of a wide variety strategies that help them appeal to potential customers in ways that scam and ghost sites wouldn’t. The mutual benefits of legitimate IPED sources being connected with potential buyers isn’t lost on the authors of this study, who conclude that a symbiotic relationship is fostered with the resulting conclusion that shutting down quality websites may increase health harm. To restate that point, law enforcement officials who strive to close down quality IPED websites run the risk of increasing, not decreasing, harm to the public. Dealers, the authors of this study remind policymakers, are not equally destructive.


Exploring the relationship between online buyers and sellers of image and performance enhancing drugs (IPEDs): Quality issues, trust and self-regulation. van de Ven K, Koenraadt R. Int J Drug Policy. 2017 Dec;50:48-55. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2017.09.004.