A Guide to Buying Prescription Drugs on the Internet

Patient Expert

by Karen Lee Richards

If you have a chronic pain illness, there's a pretty good chance you take one or more prescription medications. As the cost of your medication increases, you may be tempted to order discounted drugs from an online pharmacy--but be careful. Because the Internet has become such an integral part of our lives, we sometimes forget that we cannot trust everything we read. The Internet has no borders and is, therefore, extremely difficult to regulate. Unscrupulous people can pretty much say and do whatever they like, protected by the anonymity of a complicated technical infrastructure.

Let the Buyer Beware

Before you even consider placing an order, be sure to investigate the site thoroughly. While there are some legitimate, reputable pharmacies on the Internet, there are an increasing number of fraudulent sites. These sites may:

  • sell fake or counterfeit drugs.
  • sell drugs that are stronger or weaker than they should be.
  • sell medications that are contaminated.
  • send you drugs manufactured in countries with few, if any, safety standards.
  • send you medications that have not been properly stored or shipped.
  • not send you anything at all because they are actually fronts for credit card fraud and identity theft.

Examples of Fraud

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration discovered that several people who had ordered the drugs Ambien, Xanax, Lexapro or Ativan from online pharmacies instead received a medication containing haloperidol, a powerful anti-psychotic drug.

One site that calls itself MyCanadianPharmacy is actually a Russian (or possibly Ukrainian) spam operation that is wanted by numerous international law enforcement agencies. They front as a pharmacy in Canada, offering amazing savings on popular drugs. However, no one has ever received any medications ordered from them because their true purpose is to get your credit card number.

Interestingly, there is another spam message being sent out that tries to play on your concerns about pharmaceutical scams. The e-mail says it is from the United States National Medical Association. They claim to be a watchdog agency, protecting the customer from fraudulent sites selling bogus drugs. However, if you click on the link provided, you will not see a list of fraudulent sites, but instead you will be taken directly to the MyCanadianPharmacy site (see above).

Red Flags

Since fraudulent pharmacies often hide behind professional-looking, legitimate-sounding Web sites, how can you tell if a pharmacy is not safe to order from? There are several red flags or warning signs you can look for. Do not order from an Internet pharmacy if:

  • no doctor's prescription is required.
  • they offer an online "consultation" (usually in the form of a questionnaire) after which they will "prescribe" and ship your medication.
  • no phone number is given. You should be able to contact a legitimate pharmacy by phone.
  • no physical address is given or only a post office box is given. Be aware that sometimes a fake address is used. For example, MyCanadianPharmacy (mentioned earlier) shows both an address (that is not accurate) and a supposed photo of their building (that has been doctored).
  • prices are drastically lower than the competition.
  • the sales pitch sounds too good to be true (i.e., they promise "miracle" cures).
  • the site uses poor grammar or broken English. This is usually a clue that the operation is based in a foreign country--not the U.S. or Canada as they claim.
  • the site is not secure. Just because they say their site is secure or they show secure site logos (like Verisign) does not make it so. When you get ready to "check out," the URL on that page should start with https:// (not http://). The "s" following the http indicates the page is secure.

How to Identify a Safe Site

There are safe, reputable pharmacies available on the Internet. As long as you take the proper precautions, you can take advantage of the benefits of comparing prices and ordering your medications from the comfort of your home. A safe Internet pharmacy should:

  • be located and licensed in the country in which you reside because drug names, potencies and ingredients may vary from one country to another. To find out if a U.S. pharmacy has a valid license and is in good standing, check the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy Web site.
  • require a prescription from a healthcare professional licensed to write prescriptions in your country.
  • have a licensed pharmacist available to answer your questions.
  • provide you with a valid phone number where you can talk to a real live person.
  • offer a secure site when you check out (see warning above).

One good resource you can use to check out an online pharmacy is PharmacyChecker.com. They collect, evaluate, and report credentials, prices, and customer feedback regarding pharmacies that operate online as well as publishing pharmacy ratings, profiles, and drug price comparisons. They also provide a list of rogue pharmacy Web sites that may be unethical or unsafe.

Don't Gamble With Your Life

When money is low and pain is high, it can be very tempting to order cheap drugs online. But before you consider ordering medication from a questionable Web site, ask yourself if the monetary savings is worth the risk to your health and your life. The decision to purchase those drugs online could be one of the last decisions you ever make.

Additional Reading and References:

"Buying Medicines and Medical Products Online" - An FDA alert, Feb. 17, 2007.

"FDA Warns Consumers Not to Buy or Use Prescription Drugs from Various Canadian Websites that Apparently Sell Counterfeit Products" - FDA news, Aug. 30, 2006

"My Canadian Pharmacy" - A Spamwiki article exposing the fraudulent site, July 10, 2007.

© Karen Lee Richards 2008

Updated 1/3/09