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Buying Medications Online

  • Laurie Udesky
  • Posted March 11, 2013

How do you tell whether an online pharmacy is legitimate? Armed with the information below, you can easily weed out unscrupulous sellers and take advantage of the convenience of buying prescription drugs online.

How do I know if a pharmacy is legitimate?

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacies has an excellent screening tool: It issues a seal of approval, called VIPPS, which is short for Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites. In order to get it, sites have to prove they are licensed as well as allow scrutiny by an NABP (National Association of Boards of Pharmacies) inspection team. However, an online pharmacy can be legitimate even without VIPPS certification, which the pharmacy board encourages but does not require. As of February 2009, only 16 sites had it.

Even if an online pharmacy doesn't have VIPPS, it should display its licensing information and an office address you can contact in case you have a problem. You can check out its licensing with your own state board of pharmacies. The Web site for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacies, listed below, provides contact information for each state.

Another way to be certain that an online pharmacy is legitimate is to use one that's linked to a pharmacy you've visited in person, according to the National Consumers League. If it's a bricks-and-mortar pharmacy that exists outside of cyberspace, then you can be assured that it's safe to purchase medications at the online site.

Do online pharmacies require a prescription from my doctor?

Many of them do not, but they should. An Internet search for medication will yield a flurry of Web sites that try to entice customers to buy Viagra or Prozac with the lure of "no prior prescription needed," and "no doctor visits required," often claiming bargain sale prices. In the last few years, journalists doing news reports have found they can easily buy steroids, diet drugs, and narcotics without a prescription, sometimes simply by filling out a short questionnaire allegedly scrutinized by a doctor. In one questionnaire, a reporter added an imaginary 40 pounds to her weight and quickly received the diet drug Bontril, which can cause insomnia and increase blood pressure.

To Richard Cleland, who investigates Internet fraud for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the "no prescription needed" claims are clear signs of trouble. "The legitimate pharmacies are the ones that require a prescription from your treating physician. So that knocks out virtually all but 10 percent of so-called Internet pharmacies," says Cleland. "The safest thing is to look for the VIPPS seal of certification from the boards of pharmacies. That's the gold standard."

Isn't it okay if a site has a doctor review my medical history?

An online survey of your medical history by an unknown doctor (or someone who says he or she is a doctor) is no substitute for a face-to-face exam with a doctor, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Without an exam by a doctor who has full knowledge of your medical and medication history, you have no way of knowing how a new medication will affect you, warns Patricia Harris, executive officer of the California Board of Pharmacy.

"Having the oversight of a health professional is critical, because it may impact your health if you don't," explains Harris. She says, for example, that a new prescription could reduce the effectiveness of a drug you're already taking or cause dangerous side effects.

Harris points out that some drugs are available only by prescription for a reason: Doctor-patient contact is crucial. The fly-by-night companies bypass that relationship and could be putting patients at risk, she says. Even nonprescription medicines can interact harmfully with other medications you're taking. So it's important for your doctor and pharmacy to know everything you take.

If I'm already taking a medication, can I safely buy a refill online?

Yes, if you use the right tools to select a legitimate online pharmacy. If it's not a licensed site, you have no way of knowing if what you get in the mail is what you ordered, if it's contaminated or of high quality, and who manufactured it. Unlicensed sites, often referred to as "rogue sites," may not even send you information about the proper dosage and side effects of the medication you've purchased. But if you are using a legitimate mail-order pharmacy, ordering a refill online is considered perfectly safe.

Is it less expensive to buy on the Internet?

In many cases, yes. A 2006 study by Consumer Reports found that the median price for 5 sample generic drugs was lower online than at other outlets. However, an earlier study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the median online price of two popular drugs -- Viagra and Propecia -- were on average 10 percent higher than the same drugs purchased in pharmacies in Philadelphia. In short, you may need to shop around to get the best price on the specific medications you need. Here are some more tips from the FDA and the National Consumers League to help you make safe choices about buying medication online:

  • Only do business with sites that have a registered pharmacist to answer questions.
  • Only purchase from U.S.-based Web sites. If you have a problem, it's more likely you'll have legal recourse.
  • Stick to sites that require confirmation from your doctor for any medicine you want to buy.
  • Only use an online pharmacy that posts information about how it responds to complaints.


"E-ssentials for Online Security," National Consumers League

Interview with Patricia Harris, Executive Officer of the California State Board of Pharmacy

Interview with Richard Cleland, assistant director, Division of Advertising Practices, U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Henkel, John, "Buying Drugs Online: It's Convenient and Private, but Beware of 'Rogue Sites', U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA Consumer Magazine, January/February 2000

"Buying Prescription Medicines Online: A consumer safety guide, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Food and Drug Administration

Phone interview with American Medical Association spokesperson Robert Mills.

"Buying Medicines and Medical Products Online," U.S.Food and Drug Administration.

"Prescription for trouble," Consumer Reports, February 2001.

"Internet Fraud: Tips for Avoiding Internet Scams from the National Consumers League's Internet Fraud Watch," National Consumers League.

National Association of Boards of Pharmacies. Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS).

Consumer Reports. Getting the Best Price: Shoppers Guide to Prescription Drugs #3. 2006.

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