WATERLOO — Cayenne pepper, fenugreek extract and sage might be great for cooking, but they’re not likely to turn you into a hulk.
But that doesn’t stop thousands of people from unwittingly buying those ingredients and other nutritional supplements online when they think they’re buying steroids, often at $100 a bottle.
What they’re really getting is scammed, says a New Jersey-based author who used to work in the industry.
“They’re meant to take your money. But if you say ‘wait, these aren’t steroids,’ what can you do? You’re trying to make an illicit purchase,” said Anthony Roberts, who has written three books on steroids. “They prey on that first-time buyer.”
Roberts worked for three years as a web writer for Brian Clapp, the man behind websites such as Buysteroids.com, Steroid.com and RoidStore.com, which Roberts said are designed to trick buyers into thinking they’re selling the illegal performance enhancing drugs.
Riding the popularity of illegal, mail-order steroid websites, these fake steroids sites are making their owners wealthy by selling cheap, everyday vitamins and nutritional supplements as something far more powerful. They ship around the world, including to here in Waterloo Region.
Clapp, a Houston-based bodybuilder and businessperson, insists his network of websites makes it clear they’re selling “steroid alternatives.”
But just how clear is up for debate. Using labels like “Buy Steroids,” adopting common steroid brand names, and with promises of “discreet shipping,” many customers can easily be fooled into thinking they’re buying something other than a nutritional supplement.
Clapp’s websites explain in the fine print they are selling “powerful alternatives to anabolic steroids,” or that “all of our products are legal alternatives to anabolic steroids.” But critics charge those labels aren’t up front enough.
Clapp declined an interview request, insisting in an email he’s been running his tax-paying business legitimately since 1998.
“The products are ‘Dietary Supplements’ and it not only says it’s not a steroid on the bottle, but on the website as well,” he wrote in an email.
Roberts said his former employer believes he’s doing a public service by selling vitamins to would-be steroid users. The author said he quit working for Clapp in 2008, after getting fed up watching his former boss “ripping people off.”
“He fancies himself a good businessman and not a con artist,” Roberts said.
Most buyers don’t know Clapp also runs several anti-steroid websites, including www.steroidabuse.com. Earlier this year, Clapp issued a press release stating he was partnering with Don Hooton, the man the University of Waterloo hired as a consultant in the wake the steroid scandal that suspended its entire football program.
Clapp claimed he was teaming up with Hooton to “educate youths about the dangers of steroid abuse.” Hooton’s website even published articles from the Association Against Steroid Abuse, a website also owned by Clapp. That site also has banner ads linking to DiscountSupplements.com, another company owned by Clapp.
Hooton, meanwhile, said there is no partnership between his foundation and Clapp, though he’s met the man once for lunch and talked to him on the phone a few times. When Hooton learned of Clapp’s connection to the supplements industry, the foundation distanced itself from Clapp, he said.
“We have no association with Brian Clapp nor any of those websites,” he said. “While we support the anti-steroid messaging that he delivers on a couple of those websites, we cannot be associated with or partnered with an organization that in the end is pushing unregulated supplements.”
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency wouldn’t comment on Clapp’s businesses. But the agency says fake steroid websites are illegal, even though they’re not selling real drugs.
“It’s fraud. It’s misrepresentation. It’s counterfeit,” said DEA Rusty Payne. “They’re trying to be smooth operators, and they’re doing whatever it takes to make a buck. They’ll lie and deceive as much as they have to.”
The fake steroid websites are on the radar of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, though few have faced prosecution so far. Still, Payne said, buyers should avoid buying any kind of pharmaceuticals or supplements online, he said.
“It just shows how dangerous it is to just jump on the internet and order pharmaceuticals, because you don’t know what you’re getting. It’s not something I’d mess with,” he said.
Clapp’s former employee, meanwhile, said it’s laughable to suggest Clapp’s websites aren’t misleading buyers. They’re designed to mislead, he said.
“Why would you think you could buy steroids at buysteroids.com? It’s absurd to even think that,” Roberts said, sarcastically. “He tricks people and he takes their money and he’s doing it all with the government sitting on their thumbs.”