What to Know Before Using an Online Pharmacy

Health Insurance

Online pharmacies can be a tempting option, especially if you’re hoping for some extra privacy or looking to save a little cash. But using them can have potential legal ramifications and could put your health at risk. Here’s what you need to know before buying prescription drugs online.

There’s a trade-off for privacy

Many people shop for drugs online out of a desire for privacy; for example, they don’t want to talk with a doctor about the drugs they want. Having that conversation may be hard, “but the alternatives could be worse — even deadly,” says Libby Baney, executive director of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies.

Often, online pharmacies — especially those based outside the U.S. — promise drugs without a prescription. That’s a red flag. The drugs sold online without a prescription are not always genuine, sometimes have no active ingredients and may even contain harmful ingredients, Baney says.

According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, 96% of all online pharmacies don’t comply with state and federal laws or patient safety standards. Drugs bought online could be inauthentic, it says.

In addition to being unsafe, buying drugs from a pharmacy outside the U.S. might come with legal consequences. It’s illegal to:

  • Buy controlled substances without a prescription written by a licensed physician who has evaluated you in person. This includes all prescription narcotic painkillers, sedatives, stimulants and anabolic steroids.
  • Buy prescription drugs while you’re in the U.S. that aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration, even if they’re legal in the country from which you buy them, with a few exceptions.

Legitimate online pharmacies will require a prescription for any drugs you order. The safest way to buy drugs is with a prescription from a doctor, from a pharmacy certified by the NABP.

The mail-order pharmacy alternative

Among people who take prescription drugs, 24% say it’s somewhat or very difficult to afford them, according the Kaiser Family Foundation. So it’s little wonder many consumers are scrambling to find cheap prescriptions.

You may find a good price at an online pharmacy, but there may be another route to convenience and cost savings.

If you have health insurance, your insurer likely works with a preferred mail-order pharmacy, which can offer convenience and cost savings without the risk of an online pharmacy. This option may be available only if you take a daily or regular medication. Check the pharmacy details on your insurer’s website or call its customer service line to find out how to get your prescriptions transferred to a mail-order pharmacy.

How to safely buy prescriptions online

Here are ways to ensure your safety and security when buying medications online:

  • Look for pharmacies with a blue and red Verified Internet Pharmacy Practices Site (VIPPS) seal from the NABP.
  • Look for websites ending in .pharmacy rather than .com, which have special approval from the NABP — although not all legitimate pharmacies use that designation. You can also check any website using LegitScript’s search tool.
  • Don’t buy from websites that sell drugs without a prescription or offer to prescribe drugs for you.

Lacie Glover is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @LacieWrites.