Online Pharmacies: What You Don’t Know Could Kill You

Buying prescription drugs online is often cheaper, but it can be riskier. Before you click, heed these tips for telling phony websites from legitimate pharmacies.


Powdered cement, floor wax, rat poison and antifreeze.

These are a few of the potentially deadly substances that have been found in counterfeit medications.

In some instances, the capsules and tablets that many Americans believed to be prescription drugs contained no actual medicine. Or they contained the incorrect dosage or wrong medicine, according to a 2014 study published in the journal American Health & Drug Benefits.

CNN filmed and interviewed a Pakistani counterfeiter this summer who told the news outlet that all of his products contained the same concoction despite their differing names and appearances:

“We prepare whatever is in high demand. But everything is the same, no matter what we call it. We put the very same ingredients in all of these capsules, and the very same syrup in all of these bottles. Only the color is different.”

In the United States, counterfeit drugs constitute a rising percentage of the drug market and a growing public health concern, according to the 2014 study. Online pharmacies are a key factor contributing to that growth.

The most common way that Americans receive counterfeit medications is by ordering from rogue websites, according to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP).

These fraudulent websites operate in violation of state and federal laws, the U.S. Government Accountability Office told Congress in a 2013 report. But the shady sites are often disguised as legitimate businesses, leading consumers to believe they are pharmacies based in Canada that sell brand-name pharmaceuticals, for example.

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has reviewed more than 11,000 online drug outlets, and 96 percent appear to be violating pharmacy laws and standards, the NABP reports.

So while buying prescriptions from the minority of legitimate and licensed online pharmacies based in the U.S. is among the best ways for American consumers to lower their prescription costs, learning to discern these operations from the phony ones can be a matter of life and death.

High returns and low risks for counterfeiters

American consumers turn to online pharmacies in hopes of getting lower prices for expensive medications, or because they believe they have better odds of obtaining prescription drugs without a prescription.

Yet, these consumers are generally unaware of the risks of buying drugs online, the 2014 study found.

This combination of demand and naiveté makes such consumers easy prey for unscrupulous counterfeiters, who find a higher profit margin dealing in fake prescription drugs than they could in selling actual illegal narcotics.

For example, investing $1,000 in counterfeit prescription drugs can yield an estimated return of $30,000 — 10 times the profit rate for trafficking heroin, the study states.

The counterfeit drug trade yields an estimated $75 billion in revenue each year for illegal operators worldwide, according to the 2014 report.

Red flags to consumers

Despite the dangers the counterfeit drug trade can pose, a little due diligence by consumers when ordering from online pharmacies goes a long way in safeguarding their health.

The key is learning to tell fraudulent websites from legitimate businesses based in the U.S., where pharmaceuticals are licensed by state boards and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA also leads the BeSafeRx campaign designed to educate consumers about online pharmacies. According to the BeSafeRx website, you should avoid buying drugs from online outfits that:

  • Allow you to buy drugs without a prescription from your doctor.
  • Offer deep discounts or cheap prices that seem too good to be true.
  • Send spam or unsolicited email offering cheap drugs.
  • Are located outside of the United States.
  • Are not licensed in the United States.

Instead, seek out online pharmacies that:

  • Always require a doctor’s prescription.
  • Provide a physical address and telephone number in the United States.
  • Offer a pharmacist to answer your questions.
  • Have a license with your state board of pharmacy.

Resources for consumers

The following resources can further help you verify an online pharmacy’s legitimacy:

  • FDA’s BeSafeRx campaign: This website also includes a directory of legitimate state-licensed online pharmacies based in the U.S.
  • NABP’s Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) seal: Look for this blue symbol on pharmacy websites. It signifies that the NABP has certified an online pharmacy as compliant.
  • NABP’s information and verification site: Use this website to cross-check an online pharmacy’s VIPPS certification against the NABP’s own records.
  • NABP Foundation’s AwareRx.org: Check this website’s list of “Not Recommended Sites” — online drug outlets that the NABP has reviewed and found to be out of compliance with pharmacy laws or other regulations.

What has your experience in buying prescriptions online? Sound off in our Forums. It’s the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth, and post questions and get answers.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

I know... every site you visit wants you to subscribe to their newsletter. But our news and advice is actually worth reading! For 25 years, I've been making people richer without making their eyes glaze over. You'll be glad you did. I guarantee it!

Read Next: Should You Pay the Price for a Concierge Doctor?

Check Out Our Hottest Deals!

We're always adding new deals and coupons that'll save you big bucks. See the deals to the right and hundreds more in our Deals section.

Click here to explore 1,455 more deals!