How to Avoid Buying Fake Drugs Online

Counterfeit drugs are medications that are produced using ingredients that may be inactive, incorrect, or harmful. Counterfeit drugs are packaged and labeled to look like actual brand name drugs or generic drugs. This false packaging is to deceive you into thinking that you are buying a legitimate product.

Drugs in pill form on white table
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Risks of Taking Counterfeit Drugs

If you use a counterfeit drug you may be at risk for serious health problems, including unexpected side effects, allergic reactions, or a worsening of your health condition. These can occur because a counterfeit drug may:

  • be contaminated with harmful substances
  • contain the wrong active ingredient, which may not treat your condition or may cause unwanted side effects
  • have too little or none of the active ingredient, which will be insufficient to treat your condition
  • have too much of the active ingredient, which can cause unwanted and potentially dangerous side effects
  • be packaged in phony wrapping, which may have incorrect directions on how to use the medication

What Counterfeit Drugs Look Like

A counterfeit drug may look like the genuine version of the medication. Unfortunately, the only way to know if it is counterfeit is by performing a chemical analysis in a laboratory. However, there are some signs that may indicate your medication is counterfeit. For example, counterfeit pills may:

  • have a strange smell, taste or color
  • break apart very easily or be cracked or chipped
  • be in poor quality packages with misspelled labels, or labels that have directions that seem incorrect
  • cost very little, especially compared with the normal price of that particular drug

What to Do If You Suspect You Have a Counterfeit Drug

If you are concerned that you have a counterfeit drug, do not take it. Show the medication to your pharmacist; the professional who is the most familiar with how the medication and its packaging should look.

Your pharmacist will know if the manufacturer of your medication recently changed the appearance, flavor, or packaging of the drug. Additionally, if your pharmacy has changed from one generic drug manufacturer to another generic drug manufacturer, then the color or shape of your medication may be different. In this event, your pharmacist can verify that your medication is not counterfeit and can explain the change.

If you suspect that a drug you have purchased is counterfeit, you can report it to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through the FDA MedWatch program online or by phone at 1-800-332-1088.

Where Counterfeit Drugs Come From

The World Health Organization estimates counterfeit medications make up as much as 30% of the pharmaceutical market in parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. According to the FDA, drug counterfeiting occurs less frequently in the U.S. than in other countries because of regulations that govern the production, prescribing, and sales of medications, and the strict enforcement against violators.

In the U.S., the purchase of medications from fraudulent online pharmacies is the major source of counterfeits. Counterfeit drugs also enter the U.S. through smuggling and are brought into the country by travelers who purchase the medication while on vacation or business trips.

How to Avoid Counterfeit Medications

There are several things you can do to protect yourself from the risks associated with counterfeit drugs, including:

  • Purchase your prescription medications from licensed drugstores in the U.S. Although possible, it is rare for drugs purchased at a reputable pharmacy in the U.S. to be counterfeit.
  • Be very careful when buying medications on the Internet. If you choose to buy medications online, look for websites that have the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) seal. These are licensed pharmacies where FDA-approved medications can be purchased safely. Eighty online pharmacies carry the VIPPS seal.
  • Know your medication. When you receive your medication, pay attention to the packaging, directions on how you should take it, and the appearance of the drug itself. Do not take the medication if you have any concerns.

You also need to protect yourself from counterfeit drugs while traveling. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you bring with you all the drugs that you think you will need during your trip, rather than buying them while you are traveling.

However, if you must buy drugs during your trip, there are things you can do to reduce your chances of buying counterfeit drugs:

  • Bring a copy of your prescriptions, including the brand name or generic name and the manufacturer of any medicine that you take regularly or for a drug that has been prescribed for your trip.
  • Buy medications only from licensed pharmacies and get a receipt. Do not buy drugs from open markets.
  • Check with the pharmacist in the foreign drugstore whether the drug has the same active ingredient as the one that you were taking.
  • Make sure that the medication is in its original packaging.
  • If you are in a developing country and are concerned about the regulation of medications, check with the U.S. Embassy to see if they can recommend a safe place to purchase medications.
2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Blackstone EA, Fuhr JP, Pociask S. The health and economic effects of counterfeit drugsAm Health Drug Benefits. 2014;7(4):216-224.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Traveling abroad with medicine.

By Michael Bihari, MD
Michael Bihari, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician, health educator, and medical writer, and president emeritus of the Community Health Center of Cape Cod.