Among U.S. adults who take prescription drugs, 1 in 9 buy their meds on the internet, according to a 2018 survey from market research firm CivicScience. The rate rises to nearly 1 in 6 for people age 55 and older.
That’s a big pool of potential targets for the illicit pharmacies that sprout like weeds online. Dominating web searches for brand-name meds and increasingly popping up in social media feeds, they tout fast delivery of antidepressants, cancer drugs, painkillers, sexual aids, and unproven COVID-19 treatments such as ivermectin — at bargain prices with no prescription necessary.
Placing an order can be hazardous to your health. Of the tens of thousands of internet pharmacies, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) estimates that only 3 percent comply with U.S. pharmacy laws or professional standards.
Rogue pharmacies often represent themselves as Canadian, exploiting our northern neighbor’s reputation as a haven of low-cost medications, but many are registered to Russian web domains. They may traffic in drugs that are mislabeled; expired; ineffective because they have the wrong dosages or active ingredients; or even toxic, laced with dangerous substances ranging from printer ink and floor polish to arsenic and amphetamines, according to drug manufacturers.
These operators put more than your health at risk. Many are tied to organized crime networks, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Along with stealing your money, they may use the payment and personal information you provide for identity theft or infect your computer with malware.
And they are nothing if not opportunistic. A study published in July 2021 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found numerous rogue pharmacies turning up in web searches about ivermectin, the livestock drug that has drawn attention as a potential treatment for COVID-19 despite a dearth of medical evidence. Earlier in the pandemic, an NABP investigation found that illicit operators were snapping up coronavirus-related domain names to offer other unproven drugs touted as COVID cures, such as hydroxychloroquine.
Erectile dysfunction (ED) pills are even more popular with phony pharmacists. Counterfeit Viagra, Cialis and other ED drugs account for 80 cents on every dollar's worth of fake drugs seized at ports of entry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, according to an agency official.
Shopping for meds online can save you money and time, but take precautions to distinguish legitimate sellers from the fraudsters and black marketers.