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Shopping for Medication Online? Buyer Beware

If you are like many Americans, you routinely take several prescription medications. Even if you have pharmacy benefits, with co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses climbing, it can be tempting to go online and shop for better prices. Not all online pharmacies are legitimate, however. In fact, most of them are not. Many sell counterfeit and unapproved drugs that are hazardous to your health. As with any purchase you make online, it’s important to do your homework about any website you are considering doing business with.

According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), which accredits online drug outlets, just 4 percent appear to be above-board. The others are selling millions of dollars of drugs designed to mimic medications that treat common conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and erectile dysfunction as well as antibiotics and specialty cancer treatments. Consumers have no way of knowing if these medications contain the right ingredients in the proper dosage or if they are comprised of fillers like chalk and talcum powder, which are never used in legal drug manufacturing.

Sometimes buying medications online can be deadly. For example, a Rhode Island customer died in 2013 after ingesting an unapproved weight-loss product containing DNP (2, 4-Dinitrophenol) that was purchased through an online pharmacy. DNP is most often used in the manufacture of dyes, wood preservers and herbicides.

Can you tell the difference?

And it’s not just health that’s jeopardized. When consumers purchase drugs through rogue online pharmacies, they increase their risk for becoming victims of credit card fraud and identity theft.

This past June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in partnership with international regulatory and law enforcement agencies, suspended more than 4,000 websites that were selling counterfeit and unapproved prescription drugs. The FDA also issued warning letters to 53 other websites. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Estimates suggest there are at least 36,000 online pharmacies that are not being policed.

Be a Savvy Shopper

Whether it’s due to changing insurance coverage, medication shortages or price increases for generic drugs, rising prescription drug costs are causing hardship for lots of people. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that some are turning to online pharmacies offering medications at discounted prices. If you are thinking about doing this, following these steps can help ensure the pharmacy and its products are legal.

  1. Check for the VIPPS seal. This stands for “Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites” and it means the website has been accredited by the NABP.
  2. Only use websites based in the U.S. for the NABP directory.
  3. Confirm there is a pharmacist. You should be able to talk with one on the phone, by email or online. Look for a 1-800 number.
  4. Only use a pharmacy that requires a prescription from your doctor or health care provider.

Don’t be fooled by bargain basement prices. If your medication is for sale at an amount that seems too good to be true, chances are it is. Don’t buy it. Take your business elsewhere. More information from the FDA on how to protect yourself when buying medication online is available here.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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