Ordering prescription drugs online couldn’t be easier. With a few clicks of the mouse, you can have medications delivered right to your door, without ever having to see a doctor or go to the local pharmacy. People living with chronic illnesses depend on prescription medications, but many have trouble affording the drugs they need and getting to doctor’s appointments to obtain prescriptions. The lure and appeal of internet pharmacies is obvious, but it almost seems too good to be true. An important question looms: Is buying medications online safe?

The Rise of Counterfeit Drugs

Around the world, criminal rings have turned counterfeiting medicines into a lucrative global enterprise. Counterfeiters use fake online pharmacies to peddle their wares to unsuspecting Internet users who are trying to save time and money.

A report from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) examined more than 8,000 online pharmacy sites and found that:

  • 40% of medicine may be fake in some countries.
  • 96% of online pharmacies are not following state and federal laws and regulations.
  • 85% don’t require a prescription.
  • 43.9% sell non-FDA approved medicines.
  • More than 4,000 do not provide a physical address on their websites.

Counterfeit medicines claiming to treat cancer, diabetes, asthma, heart disease and other serious illnesses have all been discovered on these sites, the report says. These sketchy online pharmacies are typically unlicensed, unaccredited and operating illegally by ordering and shipping drugs from foreign countries. Therefore, the products these websites sell are not tested, verified or deemed reliable by any regulatory agency in the United States or abroad.

Prescriptions ordered online can be problematic in several ways. Fake drugs might contain too little or too much of an active ingredient, they may contain the wrong medicine, or they may contain no medicine at all. Investigations have found counterfeit drugs containing dangerous ingredients, such as fentanyl, arsenic, floor wax and even paint.

“Counterfeiters do not take a patient’s overall health or immune system into consideration when selling fake or sub-standard forms of life-sustaining medicines,” says a report by the Partnership for Safe Medicines, a public health group comprised of 69 non-profit organizations committed to protecting consumers. “They are not interested in whether the patient is taking other medications or if the combination of medications will result in an adverse reaction. They aren’t concerned that the products sold to treat potentially deadly diseases aren’t effective either.”

The Advantages of Brick and Mortar Pharmacies

When patients go to a pharmacy and pick up their medicines, they can be confident that what they’re purchasing is effective, safe and precisely what the doctor prescribed. FDA-approved medicine goes through an extensive regulatory and oversight process before entering the market, including steps to ensure secure transit throughout the production, packaging and distribution processes. The biggest advantage that state-licensed pharmacies provide is quality assurance.

How to Buy Medications Online Safely

If a trip to your local pharmacy still isn’t a possibility, there are legitimate retailers online. Not all Internet pharmacies are shady fronts selling fake medications. Many websites operate legally and offer convenience, privacy and safeguards for consumers, but differentiating them from illegitimate entities is easier said than done. The Partnership for Safe Medicines and regulatory agencies like the FBI, FDA and DEA urge consumers to do their homework before making a purchase online.

When conducting research, keep in mind that legitimate online pharmacies:

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  • Always require a prescription from a licensed doctor, usually by mail (if they accept a fax copy, they will always call the doctor to verify the prescription).
  • Make you submit a detailed medical history.
  • Are located in the United States.
  • Have a licensed pharmacist available to answer questions.
  • Have a website that clearly states accepted payment methods, privacy policies and shipping fees.

When you receive your medication, check that:

  • Your name is printed correctly on the medication label.
  • The name of the medication is correct.
  • The dosage matches the prescription.
  • The packaging is intact.
  • It is the same size, shape and color that you normally get from the pharmacy.
  • The expiration date is clearly listed on the packaging.

If you have any questions or concerns, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking the medication. A simple phone call may help you avoid a potentially serious mistake.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends that consumers only use sites that are accredited through the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program. VIPPS-accredited pharmacies comply with all applicable state licensing and inspection requirements and adhere to extensive quality, privacy and security standards. Visit the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy website for a list of VIPPS-accredited pharmacies.