After a recent series of raids uncovered illegally produced steroids by the barrel full, ABC News has learned that the alleged underground labs might have had as many as 30,000 to 40,000 customers.
The Drug Enforcement Administration says it has identified those alleged clients of the thriving multi-million-dollar black market industry through e-mails and credit card purchase records obtained during the course of the investigation.
Law enforcement agents discovered steroids, human growth hormone and other drugs at 56 clandestine labs across the United States as part of a two-year operation that culminated with a massive sweep earlier this fall. Officials say the caches could have supplied more than 11 million individual doses of the drugs.
Additionally, investigators say they seized $6.5 million during the operation.
"People are using this stuff in huge amounts, and other people are making a lot of money on that abuse," DEA spokesman Rusty Payne told ABC News.
"We see in an investigation like this how much money can be made," he said. "That's the motivation for what these people are doing."
Dealers utilized underground Web sites, chat rooms and message boards to market the steroids. The drugs were typically bought online, by credit card, and then mailed or shipped to the buyer's home.
'Athletes at Every Level'
Authorities said the goal of steroid users is often simple -- to gain a competitive advantage.
"I think you have a lot of weekend warriors, a lot of body builders," Payne said of typical steroid users, but there are also "athletes at every level -- professional, college, high school."
"High school girls are taking steroids now to look better, to get more tone -- in some cases, to get that athletic edge as well," he added.
And steroid traffickers often don't fit the profile of the stereotypical drug dealer. Last March in East Hanover, Pa. police arrested a body builder who also served as a volunteer football coach for a local high school for illegally manufacturing steroids.
'The Desire to Win'
The father of a teen who used steroids says it was the allure of a greater athletic prowess caused his son to start taking the drugs after a coach told him he needed to get bigger and stronger to excel at baseball.
Don Hooton says his son Taylor, only 17 years old at the time, began using illegal steroids because of a combination of factors, from the desire to emulate the successes of professional athletes, to "peer pressure, the desire to win, mom and dad pushing the kids, in a good way, but to make a starting line-up, to try to earn that scholarship," Hooton explained.
Taylor's Tragic End
But Taylor Hooton's case ended in tragedy, after the steroid apparently triggered deep depression.
"His mom found him hanging on the bedroom door after committing suicide," Don Hooton recalled. "He was a good kid and we miss him terribly. It's just a completely totally senseless, useless waste of a fine young man."
"These kids like Taylor are the achievers. They are taking steroids not to get high," Hooton said. "They are taking them because they think it is a pathway, a panacea to success, to the starting line-up, to winning, to getting the scholarship."
Don Hooton started a foundation in his son's memory in 2004, with the goal of stamping out the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Serious Side Effects
Steroids are used primarily to quickly build muscle and shrink recovery time after an injury. But those taking steroids for illicit purposes, rather than out of medical-supervised necessity, might not realize just how dangerous they can be.
Use of anabolic steroids can have serious side effects, such as strokes, blood clots, high blood pressure, heart disease, liver damage and severe mood swings including aggression and depression.
"The use of anabolic steroids is exactly like playing Russian roulette with your body, because you have no idea where that product is actually coming from," said Special Agent John Gilbride, who heads up the DEA's New York field division.
"There is no quality control premium being placed on the production" of the drugs, he added.
Gilbride said that in almost all of the illegal labs raided, authorities found unsanitary conditions. They also identified more than 30 companies in China that allegedly supplied the chemicals needed to produce steroids.
DEA officials said the precursor drugs from China were shipped to the United States where drug dealers would then use their labs to produce the finished steroids.
It is unclear which, if any, government agency in China regulates chemicals exported from the country.
Who's on the List?
Worry is already spreading over who is on the lists of users. The NCAA and major professional sports leagues have contacted the DEA, but the agency says there are restrictions on turning over the identities of users because of ongoing investigations.
But the question remains -- how far should the DEA take the investigations of individual steroid users? Should they arrest teenagers who are using?
The DEA will only say some steroid abusers will be arrested on a case-by-case basis, but for now the primary focus is on taking down traffickers.
DEA officials say they have to target the suppliers, because the demand is clearly there.