Learn how to identify unlicensed pharmacies, what they are selling and how to shop safely.

The internet is full of online pharmacy websites selling prescription medications at discounted prices, but most of those pharmacy websites are unlicensed, uncertified drug distributors. The medicines they sell are manufactured and sold outside government regulation, and because they’re unregulated, consumers who purchase them can never be sure what it is they are buying.

Unlicensed drug sellers often claim to be importing medicines from countries with strong regulations like Canada, but investigators have found that ‘Canadian” drugs are very seldom Canadian. In an operation conducted in August 2005, the FDA confiscated 4,000 parcels of illegally imported medications. 85% of medicines labelled “Canadian” were from 27 countries around the world. Upon testing, some of those medications were found to be counterfeit.

These counterfeit medicines have had terrible effects on patients’ health. In 2006, for example, a Canadian resident who ordered her medicines online died from an overdose of heavy metals. Her medications were laced with uranium, strontium, selenium, aluminum, and arsenic. In 2010, investigators found professionally packaged, ‘real’ looking pills that contained boric acid, brick dust, road paint and floor wax. In 2012, the FDA found that medical practices who ordered the late-stage cancer drug Avastin from unlicensed Turkish distributors had received medication that contained mold and water, but no active ingredient. A lung cancer patient who received that “medication” in 2011 became nauseous and feverish and went without real treatment.

There are other potential bad side effects as well. Consumers who purchase drugs from unreliable online sellers give their credit card number, address and phone number to criminals who are often affiliated with large criminal or even terrorist organizations. Criminals have used this information for identity theft, committed fraud with their patient’s credit cards, infected their customers with computer viruses, and have extorted money from patients who thought they had violated the law.

Consumers can save money safely when buying medications online without being threatened by unlicensed distributors. Always buy medication from a licensed pharmacy.  You can find lists of licensed online pharmacies by looking over the list of  VIPPS­-certified pharmacies accredited by the National Association of Board of Pharmacy (NABP). The NABP has inspected VIPPS­-certified pharmacies to verify that they protect patient privacy and security, ensure quality and provide meaningful consultation between patients and pharmacists, and are licensed by a US state to do business. Comparison shopping between these safe pharmacies can yield real savings; in 2012, asthma medications available from VIPPS-­certified pharmacies ranged in price by up to 50%. Second, they can consult their doctors to see whether a generic medication would be a good option for treatment. Finally, they can look for low­-cost or free pharmaceuticals through patient assistance programs listed on the NeedyMeds, Medicine Assistance Tool or RX Outreach websites.