Still, many Internet consumers appear to be willing to assume that risk. A well-known example is the so-called date-rape drug, GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate). This chemical became popular among would-be rapists a few years ago. Given to unsuspecting women, it causes a deep sleep.
Even small dosages of GHB, however, can cause comas from which victims never awake. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has recorded 71 deaths caused by GHB in the United States alone.
As a result, many countries prohibit the sale of GHB. The United States placed GHB under regulation in 1990 and banned it in March 2000. But the Internet now seems to have become the main promotional vehicle for a related drug that in some ways, is even more dangerous. It's called BD, short for its chemical name, 1,4-butanediol or butylene glycol.
Unbelievably, BD is being falsely pushed as a harmless relaxant or bodybuilding aid. In reality, BD is converted by the body into pure and deadly GHB.
An examination of how BD is promoted on the Web reveals a lot about the global nature of the Internet and its implications for e-commerce.
PelchatLabs, based in France and one of the most prominent GHB and BD sources recommended in Internet discussion groups, says it stopped shipping products to the United States in April 2000, and now no longer ships to Canada, Sweden, Finland, Denmark or Argentina.
To get around such restrictions, however, PelchatLabs' home page links to three other Web sites. European Cosmetics Labs and the other two sites do ship to the United States--and even offer free shipping to U.S. addresses.
Each of the three sites sells only two products. European Cosmetics Labs, for instance, sells only "nail polish remover" and "ink stain remover." Even a one-person Internet start-up might seem hopelessly unprofitable with such a limited product line.
A closer inspection of the "nail polish remover," however, reveals the secret. The liquid is 99.99 percent gamma-butyrolactone, a chemical almost identical to BD. The "ink stain remover" is 99.8 percent BD.
European Cosmetics Labs promotes its products as having "NO BITREX." Bitrex is a bitter flavoring added to real nail polish remover to keep people from drinking it. The only reason to advertise "NO BITREX" is to promote BD for human consumption.
The three sites, upon investigation, are not separate from PelchatLabs--but are all related.
All three sites are registered to the same e-mail address at "Shovelcat.com." This domain name is registered to a Daniel Pelchat, who is also the registered administrator of PelchatLabs. ("Pelle chat," literally translated from French to English, means "shovel cat.")
In an e-mail exchange, Pelchat said the sites' Webmaster "is the same for the three companies." He added, "Some of these chemicals draw less attention when shipped separately."
Another site registered to Pelchat, GHBinfo, contains formulae for cooking up GHB at home from separate substances. The site recommends that beginners take 1 gram to 2.5 grams of GHB to start, building up to 4 grams.
Unfortunately for anyone who follows this advice, even small dosages of GHB-related chemicals can be fatal. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January analyzed eight patients who had been admitted to emergency rooms after taking BD. Two of the eight patients died, one after ingesting only 5.4 grams.
The macabre joke about BD is that butylene glycol is a common industrial solvent that can be ordered by legitimate businesses in the United States for about $200 per 55-gallon drum.
PelchatLabs sells its packaged form of BD, called PRO-G, for $140 per 600 grams. That's a markup of about 10,000 percent.
Who says you can't make money on the Internet?
Brian Livingston's Wired Watchdog column appears at CNET News.com every Friday. Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to tips@BrianLivingston.com. He'll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you're the first to submit a tip he prints.