When Buying Meds Online…Beware

by Carole Jackson>, Bottom Line Health

Have you ever bought a prescription medication online? If you have, you’re in good company. A recent FDA survey showed that almost one-quarter of Internet users have. The majority of these respondents used an online service associated with their health insurance.

It’s easy to see why many people go online—it’s convenient. You press a few buttons on your computer, and without having to leave your home, your prescription is delivered to your doorstep.

But if you’re thinking about purchasing prescription medications from an online source that isn’t affiliated with your health insurance or a local pharmacy, there are many unregulated, fraudulent, illegal companies that want you to think that they are legitimate, legal pharmacies—and they may even have Web sites that look very professional. But if you use one, you may not receive what you paid for. There’s no way to know for sure whether the product that you receive contains the right amount (or any) of the active ingredient. Plus, the medicine could be contaminated or expired. So I spoke to an expert for tips on how to safely buy prescription medications online…


Many people don’t realize how important it is to research an online pharmacy before using it. For example, the FDA survey showed that 15% of the respondents said that they would consider buying medication from an online pharmacy based outside the US. But the FDA doesn’t regulate pharmacies that are located outside the US. So the first rule of thumb is to make sure that an online pharmacy is licensed in the US state where it is operating, said Connie Jung, RPh, PhD, acting associate director for policy and communication at the FDA in the Office of Drug Security, Integrity and Recalls, who analyzed the survey results. This ensures that the pharmacy will be held to following state laws. To find out whether your Internet pharmacy is licensed by the state that it’s operating in, don’t just go by a statement on the site (because that could be fake). Check with your state’s licensing organization by clicking here.

Here are more questions to ask yourself before you commit to using a particular online pharmacy, from Dr. Jung…

  • Does the pharmacy require that you send in your prescription? If it doesn’t, don’t use the pharmacy. Any legit pharmacy will require a prescription. Depending on the pharmacy, the pharmacist will either ask you to mail in the prescription or he or she might contact your doctor directly.
  • Does the pharmacy send you spam? If you start getting spam or weird e-mails from the pharmacy that offer deep discounts and push you hard to buy medications, don’t use the pharmacy. That’s a sign that the “pharmacy” and its Web site may be a sham.
  • Does the pharmacy offer prices that are too good to be true? There’s no way to know exactly what’s “too good to be true,” but if, say, one pharmacy typically charges $32 for a bottle of a brand-name (nongeneric) medication, and another charges $30, but an online pharmacy is charging just $5, that’s suspicious.
  • Does the pharmacy have pharmacists who are available to talk to you? If the store doesn’t allow you to speak with any pharmacists over the phone, don’t use it. It may be an indication that real pharmacists aren’t running the pharmacy.

Source: Connie T. Jung, RPh, PhD, acting associate director for policy and communication, Office of Drug Security, Integrity and Recalls, Office of Compliance, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, US Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, Maryland.