10. Counterfeit Steroid Identification

This section pertains to methods for differentiating between legitimate pharmaceutical products and illegitimate copies (counterfeits). Before we begin, I need to remind you that counterfeiting anabolic steroids is a very lucrative business these days. Counterfeiters are investing a lot of money in printing and packaging equipment so that you’ll have a hard time picking out their products. Furthermore, there are now many large “commercial scale” counterfeiting operations, with the capacity to manufacture all product formats including ampules, logo imprinted pills, and push-through tablet strips. Given this high level of sophistication, steroids purchased on the black market need to be inspected with great care. The mistakes made by counterfeiters are often minor, and noticed in the fine (not obvious) detail.

Step #1: Eliminate the Obvious

When counterfeit steroids first appeared decades ago, they were often very easy to spot. The manufacturers operated on a small scale, and made small-scale mistakes. For example, the printing might be sloppy, or the containers thin and flimsy. They might have lacked the equipment to put the product in a box, or even affix an expiration date and lot number to it. No legitimate pharmaceutical would be sold like this. Much has changed over the years, however. Few counterfeiters still make the basic mistakes that were once common. Don’t expect identifying these products to be easy. Still, that is not to say that obvious counterfeits aren’t available. Indeed, they can be found on the black market from time to time. This first set of instructions, therefore, seeks to eliminate only the most obvious fakes. For the rest, we will need a more detailed analysis.

1. Sloppy Printing. Drug manufacturing is not a small scale endeavor. Sizable pharmaceutical companies control the global drug trade, and make products that are typically very professional in appearance. You should not expect to see things like runny inks, sloppy lines, or misaligned images on real drug packaging. Sometimes counterfeiters still use cheap (small-scale) printing and reproduction methods, which make labels and boxes that stand out as sloppy. Don’t ever use a product if it just doesn't “look right” to you. You are probably subconsciously picking up on minor deviations.

2. Cheap Packaging. Virtually all legitimate steroid products come in boxes. Inside the box you should find a drug information sheet. Some counterfeiters will skip these steps entirely. Real ampules, vials, and tablets are sometimes smuggled loose, but let someone else take the risk. The box for a pharmaceutical product should be structurally sound, closing tightly and evenly. Some counterfeiters seal their own boxes by hand, and they may be uneven or poorly glued. Real boxes should be printed (ink directly on cardboard). Some counterfeiters cover plain white boxes with stickers. If the vial, ampule, or bottle has a label, machines should have put it on straight. Counterfeiters often apply labels by hand, so many will be crooked. Some counterfeiters use ampules, but blank laboratory samples. These are filled by hand and sealed over a flame. They are a bit larger than the average ampule, and somewhat unusual in appearance. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any steroid that does not come in a professional looking package.

The ampule is a laboratory blank, meant to be sealed by hand over a flame. It is larger and more unusual in appearance than most traditional ampules.

3. Multi-dose Containers. In the United States, we are used to our injectable medications coming in multi-dose vials (these have a rubber top to let needles pass through more than once), and our pills loose in bottles. Most other countries, however, do not allow this type of packaging for human medicines. They consider it unsterile, and permit it only for animal drugs. Instead, they require each dosage unit to be separate. This usually means break open glass ampules for injectable medications, and push through blisters for pills and capsules. Since you are unlikely to find real American products on the black market, it may be best to avoid all multi-dose containers when it comes to human pharmaceuticals. Most are going to be counterfeit. When you find veterinary drugs in multi-dose containers, extra care should be taken to examine them closely, since these products are more easily counterfeited.

The above is a crude copy of an American testosterone product, which uses the same label on the box and vial. A counterfeit as simple as this is rare to find today.
Another example of an obvious counterfeit. This box is crude in design and uses a brand name that has been off the market since the 1980s

The photographs below show what it looks like when the lot number and expiration date are added after the initial box/label printing, as well as counterfeit products without this feature. The characters on a real pharmaceutical product should stand out from the rest of the printing, which will consist of tiny dots blended together to create a solid image (see Step #3 for more information on the ink). When the lot/expiration information is added with a mechanical stamp, the ink will be much more solid under magnification (note that it may appear blotchy under deep magnification). Depending on the equipment, it may also have left a physical indent you can feel when rubbing your thumb over the information. When the dates were added by computer, we usually see large dots that are visible to the naked eye. Be careful to look at the characters closely. Counterfeiters will try to make the information look like it was added by machine or computer, even though it was printed. If you see that tiny dots make up the characters under 200X magnification, it is not legitimate stamp or computer printing

A real box of Proviron. Under magnification we can see that the lot number and expiration date were stamped on mechanically.
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Step #2: Examine Lot Number/Expiration

A more formal analysis should always begin with the lot number/expiration date. Pharmaceutical companies have their boxes and labels manufactured in bulk, usually at an offsite printing facility. They are not serialized; lot numbers/expiration dates have not yet been applied to them. This information is added with a mechanical stamping machine or computer/inkjet printer at the time the drug is packaged. Counterfeiters often don’t wait, and simply print the lot number/expiration date with the rest of the boxes and labels. This means less work, less equipment, and less cost. Knowing this, examining the lot number/expiration date information can be a good way to spot counterfeits. You need to look at the lot/date information very closely, preferably with a handheld microscope with 100-200X magnification.

Another example of mechanical stamping of the lot number and expiration date.
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Real testosterone cypionate from Watson (U.S.) The above lot/expiration date were added by computer printer. Under magnification we see the large dots are solid ink.
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Another real product (Proviron) with information applied post-printing with a computer printer.
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(Counterfeit) At first glance the slight run on the ink appears to be the result of mechanical stamping. Under magnification, however, we see this is simulated.
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(Counterfeit). An example of simulated computer lettering. You can see under magnification that the information was actually made by normal process printing, along with the rest of the box.
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(Counterfeit). Again, the date was added with the rest of the printing. This manufacturer simply made the text bold in an effort to hide the printed nature of the information.
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Step #3: Look at the Ink

One of the first things that the U.S. Secret Service does when it takes in a counterfeit bank note is to examine the inks used by the counterfeiters. They learned long ago that you can tell a great deal about a bill this way. You can tell how and when it was printed, sometimes even where. Now we are not going to analyze the inks on steroid boxes in the lab as the Secret Service does. We will, however, look at the printing closely enough that it can help differentiate real from fake in some cases. Once again, this will be done with a handheld microscope, preferably at 200X magnification.

First, let’s go over some general information so you know what we are looking at. For this examination we intend to find out how the printing was placed on the box or label. Color printing is usually accomplished through two methods. The first is called “process color,” and the second “spot color.” One method may be used to print the product, or both methods may be combined on the same packaging. Each method offers its own set of advantages. When we know how and when these methods are typically applied, we can gain some insight into the thoughts of the designer. More importantly, we might be able to tell if the methods are appropriate for the product in question.

The process color method is most often used to reproduce photographs, or to print multiple colors (three or more) on one piece. It is the more flexible and visually deep method of coloring. Process color can give the appearance of hundreds, thousands, even millions of colors at one time, although technically this is an illusion. Upon microscopic examination, you will see that the colors all break down into a mix of only four separate inks: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK). The four CMYK colors are applied in tiny dots, which are assembled in different patterns. They blend together to the naked eye, giving the appearance of more colors.

The spot color method is used when a very specific color ink is required. Instead of using a CMYK blend to reproduce a certain shade of green, for example, an ink is mixed in to provide the exact green color that is needed. If you look at spot color under 200X magnification, you will not see CMYK color dots. Small dots are still used, but they are all the same color (they are placed closer or further apart for shading). Note that it can be very hard to notice these dots in areas with solid fill. The major advantage to spot color is consistency. A detailed color matching system assures the desired color is exactly what is applied to the printed packaging every time. You will usually find big companies using spot color, especially with important corporate identifiers (logos, repeat images, trademarks).

The main thing we are hoping to see under magnification is the use of some spot color. While the lack of spot color does not necessarily mean that a product is counterfeit, you should expect to see it on most real pharmaceutical packaging samples. If the package has only two or three colors, they will probably use spot color exclusively. If the packaging has more than three colors, they may use a foundation of process color, but add spot color to certain key elements. Spot color usually signifies some attention to detail, which sometimes the counterfeiters miss.

This box of Depo-Testosterone was printed entirely with spot color. Large companies like Pfizer tend to prefer this method of printing.Note the unified dots under 200X magnification, indicating spot color.
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References

Wlliam Llewellyn (2011) - Anabolics

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