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FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER

Online Pharmacy Scams

En español | 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.

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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.

Warning Signs

  • An unsolicited email or social media post promises 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 make sure an online seller is licensed. The FDA, the NABP and the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CISP) 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, which reflects NABP review and accreditation.
  • Do know your meds. If you notice anything different or unusual in the appearance, packaging, 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.

More Resources

Updated September 1, 2021

About the Fraud Watch Network

Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.

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