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FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER

Online Pharmacy Scams

Nearly a quarter of Americans who use the internet have purchased medications from online pharmacies, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That’s a huge pool of potential targets for the illicit pharmacies that sprout like weeds online. Dominating Google searches for brand-name meds, and increasingly popping up in social media feeds, they tout fast delivery of painkillers, cancer drugs, antidepressants, sexual aids and more — at bargain prices, with no prescription necessary.

Cost and convenience make online pharmacies tempting, especially for the older Americans who account for 71 percent of outpatient prescriptions. But placing an order can be hazardous to both your physical and financial health.

There are tens of thousands of such sites, and the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) estimates that 95 percent don't 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 products that are misbranded, expired, ineffective (with the wrong active ingredients or none at all) or even toxic, laced with opioids and other dangerous substances.

These operators put more than your health at risk. Some are tied to organized crime, the nonprofit Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP) reports, and use the payment and personal information you provide for identity theft. In a new twist on prescription drug frauds, crooks posing as FDA or Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents contact people who purchased medications online or by phone and threaten them with arrest unless they pay immediate fines. 

Buying prescription drugs online is not in itself illegal, but consumers should take precautions to distinguish legitimate internet pharmacies from the fraudsters and black marketeers.

Warning Signs

  • You receive unsolicited emails or social media posts promising deep discounts on well-known drugs.
  • A pharmacy site allows you to buy medications without a prescription.
  • The site offers to ship internationally.
  • The supposed pharmacy is located outside the United States, or its website does not list a location.

Do's

  • Do get your prescriptions from a licensed brick-and-mortar drugstore whenever possible.
  • Do make sure an online seller is licensed. The FDA, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies offer tools for finding safe and legal online pharmacies. 
  • Do check that the site has a U.S. address and phone number.
  • Do look for sites with a ".pharmacy" domain or a VIPPS (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites) logo. These reflect review and accreditation by the NABP.
  • Do know your meds. If you notice anything different or unusual in the packaging, appearance, smell, taste or texture of drugs you bought online, consult your pharmacist.  

Don'ts

  • Don’t judge a pharmacy website as credible just because it looks slick and professional. Pharmaceutical scammers are adept at creating convincing online storefronts.
  • Don’t buy unless the pharmacy requires a prescription from your own doctor and has a licensed pharmacist you can consult.
  • Don’t give credit card or other payment information unless you’re sure the pharmacy site is secure. 
  • Don’t give money or financial information in response to a letter or phone call purportedly from the FDA or DEA — it’s almost certainly an extortion scam. Those agencies do not send warnings to or demand money from individual consumers.

AARP Fraud Watch Network

Fight back against frauds and scams! Call our free Fraud Watch helpline at 877-908-3360 to speak with volunteers trained in fraud counseling. You can also sign up for Watchdog Alerts and check out our scam-tracking map.

More Resources

  • The FDA’s BeSafeRx campaign has tips for recognizing — and minimizing — the risks of buying meds online. The FDA also provides multiple ways to report suspicious pharmacies, as well as links to state agencies where you can check whether a pharmacist is licensed.
  • The FTC takes online reports of counterfeit drug scams and other frauds, and the agency’s website offers a guide to buying health products and services online.
  • The NABP maintains a list of accredited online pharmacies. The CSIP's "Verify Before You Buy" program can also help you determine if a seller is legitimate. 

Published: Dec. 3, 2018

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