What you need to know before you buy prescription medications online

August 13, 2015 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn
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The attraction of buying prescription medications online is that prices can be lower than your local pharmacy, but those savings can come with some risk. Some websites deliver illegal, counterfeit or incorrect medications and medical devices, which can put your health at risk. So what do you need to know before buying prescription medications online?

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in partnership with international regulatory and law enforcement agencies took action against more than 1,000 websites that were illegally selling what the agency described as potentially dangerous, unapproved medications and medical devices directly to consumers. Among the medications intercepted were counterfeit drugs claiming to be generic FDA-approved versions of the breast cancer drug tamoxifen, Meridia, a weight loss drug withdrawn from the U.S. market five years ago because it increased the risk of heart attacks, the tranquilizer Valium, HIV medication Truvada, and COPD medication Advair. Investigators also seized several types of illegal cosmetic dermal fillers.

What are the risks?

The old adage, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” applies to online medication prices. If a website is offering your prescription medication for a significantly lower price than you can buy it from your local pharmacy or a mail order prescription service through your health insurer, there’s a higher likelihood that the site is not legitimate.

The other risks of buying prescription medications online include:

  • counterfeit or contaminated medications that contain no active ingredients or incorrect active ingredients that can be ineffective or harmful
  • drugs that are too old to be effective
  • medications for which the dosage is stronger or weaker than prescribed
  • medications made in a facility that does not follow safe manufacturing protocols

In addition, your personal and credit card information may not be properly protected, putting you at risk for identity theft and credit card fraud.

Be safe. Use a licensed pharmacy

If you choose to use an online pharmacy, make sure it is licensed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). The site should have a seal that says “VIPPS”, which stands for “Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites.” This seal means that the site has been screened and approved by the NABP.

The pharmacy should also:

  • be licensed and located in the U.S.
  • be registered or licensed in the state where it is based (You can check that information on the NABP website.)
  • have registered pharmacists who are available by phone to answer any questions you have about your prescription, potential side effects, or drug interactions
  • have a physical address and contact phone number listed on the site

There are some red flags that indicate that an online pharmacy is not legitimate. These can include not requiring a prescription, offering to prescribe medications for you, and offering to provide you with medications that are not FDA-approved in the U.S. even if they are legal in other countries.

Whether you fill your prescriptions at the local pharmacy or online, there are several steps you can take to make sure you receive what your doctor prescribed. Check to be sure that:

  • your name is on the prescription label
  • the name of the medication is correct
  • the dosage matches your prescription
  • the expiration date is clearly listed
  • any packaging is intact
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