Using Online Pharmacies: Recommended Practices and How to Spot Fakes

How to find the genuine item when 96% of online pharmacies either break the law or operate outside accepted codes of practice: Internet Scambusters #408

Using online pharmacies may help you save money — and can certainly save time by delivering your meds straight to your home.

But the fact is that many online pharmacies, especially those overseas, do not meet the USA’s strict quality control regulations, and some of them are downright crooked — either selling phony or unapproved drugs or sometimes selling nothing at all.

We turned to official US pharmacy watchdogs for guidance on what can and can’t be done and for tips on how to spot the fakes.

Using Online Pharmacies: Recommended Practices And How To Spot Fakes

In these days of financial hardship and high healthcare costs, it’s not surprising that many people have turned to online pharmacies to cut their medication bills.

Contrary to what some people may believe, it’s not illegal to buy your drugs online. And it’s true that, in some cases, significant savings can be made.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) puts it this way on its website:

“Legitimate pharmacy sites on the Internet provide consumers with a convenient, private way to obtain needed medications, sometimes at more affordable prices. The elderly and persons in remote areas can avoid the inconvenience of traveling to a store to purchase medications. Many reputable Internet pharmacies allow patients to consult with a licensed pharmacist from the privacy of their home.”

But sometimes you can make online pharmacy purchases at significant risk to both your health and your wallet.

In fact, according to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), which monitors the industry on behalf of individual state boards of pharmacy, a stunning 96% of online pharmacies may be either breaking the law or at least operating outside of accepted codes of practice.

And to get some idea of the scale of online pharmacy scams, the Internet security firm McAfee reported that in just one month last year, 70% of all spaham (misspelled intentionally) was for medications.

Of course, some of these online organizations aren’t even pharmacies, in the sense of offering medications for sale.

They’re merely a front for stealing (you pay but don’t receive anything), identity theft (your credit card and other personal details are either sold or used to buy stuff) or even extortion (scammers pose as officials of the Food and Drugs Administration — the FDA — the scammers accuse victims of buying drugs illegally and demand they pay an immediate “fine.”

That’s bad enough, but, even worse, some other fake online pharmacies do actually supply products that turn out to be counterfeits, duds or even dangerous formulations that can harm health or even be life-threatening.

In one FDA study, pills, originating in India, that were supposed to contain the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu, were found to be made of nothing more than talcum powder and acetaminophen, the painkiller used in over-the-counter products like Tylenol.

How to find accredited online pharmacies

So, what are we supposed to do if, quite naturally, we want to include legitimate online pharmacies when we’re shopping around for the best price on our meds?

Well, a good starting point is the NABP website, which publishes a list of pharmacies it has actually checked out and accredited through its Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program.

It only has a couple dozen names on it, although, collectively, they apparently represent over 12,000 actual pharmacies filling online prescriptions nationwide.

Of course, not making the list doesn’t necessarily mean that a pharmacy isn’t legit (especially if it’s legally operating in its own host country) or that it won’t supply the correct product.

But not being on the NABP list certainly means the pharmacy hasn’t, in the Association’s terms, “undergone and successfully completed the thorough NABP accreditation process, which includes a thorough review of all policies and procedures as well as an on-site inspection of all facilities used by the site to receive, review, and dispense medicine.”

On the other hand, NABP publishes a huge list of hundreds of so-called pharmacies it says it does not recommend.

These include those that claim to dispense drugs without a prescription or sell products not approved by the FDA, and, of course, fake online pharmacies that are downright fraudulent.

In addition to being included on this list, other warning signs of fake online pharmacies include sites that don’t provide a physical address for their business or don’t list a verifiable phone number.

The World Health Organization says that half of drugs supplied through sites that don’t give their addresses are counterfeit.

NABP also includes pharmacies on its “not-recommended” list simply because they are outside the US.

That’s understandable insofar as such pharmacies are outside the jurisdiction of US authorities, although the FDA’s guidance on personal importation of drugs acknowledges (though it does not necessarily legally approve) importation of certain medications for personal use.

Key links for online pharmacy info

Since Scambusters does not give legal advice, check out the FDA’s internal manual that gives guidance to its staff on how to treat the importation of drugs.

It’s important to make clear that this isn’t a public policy document, so we recommend that you seek further advice either from your doctor or directly from the FDA, if you’re thinking of using an online pharmacy outside of the US.

It’s also worth noting that individual state pharmacy boards may also have different rules on what you can and can’t do. You can find contact details for your state pharmacy board on the NABP site.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also recommends use of the VIPPS program and following the FDA/NABP guidance on buying only from US licensed pharmacies. And, even when you do that, you should still make price comparisons in just the same way as you do with any other online or offline purchase, it adds.

Rules to avoid pitfalls

Let’s summarize with a few simple rules that will help you avoid getting snared in online pharmacy scams:

  • Don’t deal with sites that offer controlled meds without prescription.
  • Be wary of those that offer a prescription based only on completion of an online questionnaire; the American Medical Association suggests these are unlikely to meet appropriate standards of medical care.
  • Don’t use sites without a verifiable address or phone number.
  • Check the NABP site listings for any online pharmacy you’re thinking of using.
  • Discuss your online prescription plans with your physician.
  • If you’ve previously bought online, ignore intimidating calls purportedly from the FDA or FTC threatening to fine you; government departments don’t operate this way and don’t fine you over the phone.
  • Consider using a one-time, disposable credit card number for your purchases (many card operators offer these — check with your provider).
  • If in doubt, contact the FDA or NABP.

Along with having food and shelter, protecting your health and that of your family should always be a primary concern. Following our guidance for using online pharmacies can help you achieve this.

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.