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spacer Tips: Buying Prescription Medicines (Meds) Online

Online pharmacies offer the benefits of convenience, privacy and, often, cheaper prices.

However, it's important to be cautious when buying your prescription meds from an online pharmacy. Many online pharmacies that appear reputable and similar to legitimate retail pharmacy websites actually sell fake pills that do not contain the medicine approved by the FDA, have doses that are too strong or too weak, contain dangerous ingredients, aren't manufactured using safe standards, or aren't labeled, packaged or shipped properly.

Here's how to check that your online pharmacy is trustworthy — and will deliver you the FDA-approved prescription meds in the correct dosages.

First.... order and use only prescription medicines that have been prescribed by your physician or other licensed healthcare professional. This is the first vital line of defense to be sure you get the correct medicine at the proper dose.

Delivery of medicines from online pharmacies usually takes days or occasionally weeks. Therefore, prescriptions to treat emergency or urgent conditions such as an infection or pain from an injury should be ordered from your local drugstore so that you get immediate benefit from the meds your doctor prescribed.

For prescription medications that involve long-term care or on-going drug therapy, you can often obtain substantial savings by ordering online. Many online suppliers of prescription medicines offer a full range of discount meds for most non-emergency conditions.

Second.... identify three to five online pharmacies that carry the meds you want to order in the dose prescribed by your physician. You can do that by putting the terms "online pharmacy" or "online drugstore" into your favorite Internet search engine. You should ignore and discard any e-mail promotion you receive for prescription medicines, especially if the company and its location are not fully identified in the e-mail.

Third.... check on each online pharmacy you have selected for price, ordering policies, delivery methods, extra fees and corporate reputation. Caution: if the price for your medication at one online pharmacy is substantially lower than other online pharmacies, the pills are likely to be counterfeit (fake) and possibly unsafe.

How do assure yourself that an online pharmacy is reputable?

First, be sure the online pharmacy is a U.S.-based pharmacy, licensed by the state board of pharmacy in the state where the company is located. To do that, go to the pharmacy's website. Then find and click on the "Contact Us" or "About Us" link. (If there is no such link, the company is more than likely trying to hide its true identity and location.) Write down its address and phone number. Then go to the website of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. On the site is the contact information for the Board of Pharmacy in each state. Contact the Board of Pharmacy by phone or e-mail and ask if the pharmacy you selected is licensed in that state. Alternatively, you can check out the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites for a list of licensed pharmacies in each state. You should be aware, however, that many reputable online pharmacies are not included on that list.

Many of the legitimate online pharmacies are owned and managed by the major drugstore companies including Walgreens, CVS, Wal-Mart and Target. Their online sites often sell prescription meds at prices that are lower than the prices for the same prescription medications in their local drugstore. There are also many other online pharmacies that are very reputable and honest — and may offer even lower prices on prescription medicines and better service than the brand-name drugstore chains.

Finally, you might want to check the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine if warning letters have been issued to the online pharmacy you selected. And you might want to check out consumer complaint sites such as Better Business Bureau,, or Planet Feedback.

You might also seek out recommendations from trusted healthcare professionals.

Discard any pharmacies that are not US-based, licensed by the Pharmacy Board of its home state, or have a long list of consumer complaints. Only after making those checks should you contact an online pharmacy to order your prescription meds.

The first contact is best done by phone so that you can better assess the online pharmacy and its staff.

When you contact the pharmacy, you can do other tests to check legitimacy — and the pharmacy's commitment to their customers.
  • Do they request your prescription along with the name and contact information of the prescribing physician? Disreputable pharmacies often do not require prescriptions and doctor contact information.
  • Does the company have a registered pharmacist available to discuss your medication with you when you call?
  • Does the company website display a seal showing that it is a secure website? Do not provide credit card or personal information online unless the e-commerce website is secure.
  • Does the company website promise not to sell or share your personal data with other marketers?
  • Where is the worker you are talking to located? To verify, ask for the area code.
  • Are there any additional fees over and above cost of medication and shipping?
In placing the order for your meds, you should get detailed information about shipping costs, methods and estimated day of arrival. Use expedited shipping if necessary and get a tracking number.

After you place the order, notify your doctor's office that the online pharmacy will be calling to verify the prescription.

When your prescription meds arrive, check them against your existing prescription. Are they the exact same size, shape and color? Are the markings on the pills identical? If not, take both sets of pills to your doctor or pharmacist to be checked. And be careful not to mix the two prescriptions.

In searching for an online pharmacy to order your meds, you will probably find websites and advertisements for Canadian online pharmacies. Many people order their prescription meds from Canadian pharmacies because many meds are cheaper there. However, the FDA is very concerned about importing prescription drugs from Canada because there is no assurance that the imported drugs are the same products approved by the FDA. According to the FDA, it is a violation of law for U.S. consumers to import prescription drugs, even if the drug is approved in the U.S. That being said, many consumers do choose to purchase their prescription medications from Canadian pharmacies at lower prices. If you do, you should be doubly careful in selecting a Canadian pharmacy. An FDA test demonstrated that over 50% of prescription drugs purporting to be "Canadian" actually came from other countries, and many were shown to be fake, contaminated or otherwise unsafe.

Finally, to help protect other consumers, you should notify the FDA if you find a website that you believe is illegally selling prescription medicines in the U.S.

Links to Other Articles about Online Pharmacies and Counterfeit Medicines

Counterfeit Drug Resource Page: How Fake Drugs Can Make It To Your Medicine Cabinet — The Turkewitz Law Firm

Dangerous Doses: A True Story of Cops, Counterfeiters, and the Contamination of America's Drug Supply

What is the Danger of Counterfeit Drugs? — Rep. Steve Israel

Protect Yourself from Counterfeit Drugs — National Consumers' League

General Information on Counterfeit Medicines — World Health Organization

Counterfeit Medicines: An Unscrupulous Business — German Pharma Health Fund

Use Caution Buying Medical Products Online — FDA

Counterfeit Drug — Wikipedia

The Medicines That Could Kill Millions — New Scientist

Bitter Pills: More and More People Are Buying Prescription Drugs from Shady Online Marketer —

Counterfeit Medicines: An Update on Estimates —

Buying Meds Online: Buyer Beware! —