Is it OK to buy medicine online?

Some people get prescription drugs from Internet sites outside of the U.S., but there are safer ways to save.

Published: August 30, 2015 06:00 AM

Almost 60 percent of those surveyed last June by the Consumer Reports National Research Center said they’re trying to cut health care costs. Many of them said they get bargains on medications, for example, by buying them from online pharmacies outside the U.S. In fact, based on the survey, the center estimates that 1.9 million Americans buy medications that way.

It’s not terribly risky to order a toaster online, but it is when you fill prescriptions through Internet pharmacies. Cyberspace is rife with sellers peddling illegal and even toxic products, often through websites that appear to be authentic.

“The vast majority of websites selling prescription drugs are not legitimate,” says Carmen Catizone, D.Ph., executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). Last June, for example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took action against more than 1,050 sites, seizing products being sold fraudulently as FDA-approved prescription drugs and medical devices. And Catizone points out that of the almost 11,000 online drug outlets that NABP recently reviewed, only about 4 percent were operating according to U.S. laws and standards.

Have you ever ordered medicine online from outside the U.S?

Tell us about your experience below.

Online drug dangers

Rogue pharmacies often sell unapproved drugs that are counterfeit or poorly made, according to recent reports from the Government Accountability Office. Medications sold through those websites have been found to contain too much or too little of a drug’s active ingredient, or in some cases, a different drug entirely. Some drugs have even been found to contain dangerous contaminants, including toxic yellow highway paint, heavy metals, and rat poison.

“In the worst cases, people have died because medications contained toxins or didn’t treat their serious medical conditions,” Catizone says.

Ordering from those sites also puts your personal and financial information at risk. You may find yourself inundated with spam e-mail or your computer could be infected by a virus.

In addition, it’s illegal to order drugs from outside the U.S., so you may never receive what you ordered. And if the prescription is filled incorrectly or the drug contains ingredients that make you sick, you have no legal recourse.

Safer strategies

“There are legitimate online pharmacies,” says Lyndsay Meyer, an FDA spokeswoman. “But consumers need to be careful and know what to look for.”

If you choose to order online, make sure that the site is licensed, requires you to submit prescriptions, has a state-licensed pharmacist available to answer questions, and is within the U.S. (You may want to stick with the websites of drugstores you already know and trust, those connected to chain stores, big-box stores, and local mom and pop pharmacies.)

Want an easy way to tell whether an Internet pharmacy is safe and legal? Look for “.pharmacy” at the end of the Web address, which indicates that the site is licensed and has been verified by the NABP. (Only U.S.-based sites with “.pharmacy” in the URL will ship to U.S. addresses.) Or look for the seal from the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites program, or VIPPS, indicating that the company completed voluntary accreditation through the NABP. For a list of accredited sites (and those not recommended), go to

But you can save money on prescriptions without going online. Many stores offer deeply discounted generic drugs, and some also offer loyalty programs that give discounts to members.

Find out the surprising ways to save money on your prescription drugs.

Photo: David Muir/Getty Images

About 'Canadian' sites

Many consumers think that they can sidestep any potential danger associated with ordering medications online by getting them from Canada, where the laws governing their sale are similar to those in the U.S. But our Best Buy Drugs experts advise against that (or ordering them from any other country). Here’s why: Internet pharmacies claiming to be Canadian usually aren’t. “Most are fake storefronts selling low-quality products from Third World countries,” explains Carmen Catizone of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

Editor's Note:

This article is made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

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