How to Find an Online Pharmacy You Can Trust

Finding a Licensed Online Pharmacy

With the rising costs of many prescription drugs and changes to health insurance coverage, an increasing number of Americans are filling their prescriptions through online pharmacies. A Consumer Reports survey from 2017 found that around 3.4 million Americans had purchased at least one of their medications online in the last year in an attempt to save money.

Online pharmacies can be a reliable, easy, efficient, safe, and private way to buy prescription and over-the-counter medications. However, it can be tricky to know if you are buying from a legitimate business.

Before you buy from an online pharmacy, you'll want to find out whether it's properly licensed. Organizations such as the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), PharmacyChecker, and the Canadian International Pharmacy Association (CIPA) evaluate online drugstores for the quality and safety of their services.

Potential Dangers

There are a number of potential problems with online pharmacies. While there are laws to protect consumers, those laws have limitations. Even with laws in place, a dishonest business may work hard to get around the rules.

Dangers of Online Pharmacies

  • Selling counterfeit medications
  • Selling medications that are not approved
  • Selling or sending you the wrong medication
  • Selling medications without a medical professional's prescription
  • No protection for consumers' personal information (including payment information)

While the FDA regulates prescription drugs in the U.S., it cannot monitor the safety and efficacy of imported products. Websites selling medications that are not FDA-approved can pop up seemingly overnight and disappear just as quickly. Therefore, little can be done if consumers receive counterfeit drugs or are victims of a scam.

What to Look For

It is perfectly legal to get your medications from an online pharmacy, but not all online pharmacies follow legal guidelines. There are a number of things that you should consider when searching for a legitimate online pharmacy.

Check with your health insurance. If your health insurance plan offers prescription coverage, ask your insurer for a list of approved online pharmacies. Companies vet pharmacies before accepting them as suppliers, so you can trust that a pharmacy on their approved list is a legitimate option.

However, if a pharmacy is not approved by your health insurer, it doesn't mean the pharmacy is not legitimate—it only means that your insurance company and the pharmacy do not have a business agreement with each other.

Be sure that the pharmacy requires a doctor's prescription. If an online pharmacy allows you to call in a prescription for yourself, it's a major red flag that the business is not legitimate. Likewise, if a pharmacy provides a doctor to write a prescription for you (often without an exam), this practice is unsafe and illegal.

Watch out for unusual prices. If you are paying for your prescriptions yourself, you'll likely want to shop around to save money. While there are some legitimate ways to save money on prescription medications, if you find an online pharmacy with unrealistically low or high prices, be wary.

Make sure the pharmacy has a physical address. If a pharmacy claims to be in the U.S. or Canada, confirm the business has a physical street address in one of those countries. A P.O. box address can be a sign that the pharmacy is not actually located where the name implies.

Verifying Your Online Pharmacy

In addition to looking for red flags, there are important resources you can use to verify that you are dealing with a legitimate and licensed pharmacy. The criteria for these resources often overlap and can be used together to help you verify an online pharmacy.

The majority of online pharmacies are rejected by these organizations. In 2017, a report from the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP) found that as many as 96% of online pharmacies are noncompliant with federal and/or state laws.

NABP

In the U.S., pharmacists and pharmacies are licensed by state boards. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) is a nonprofit association of the boards of pharmacy in each of the 50 U.S. states, U.S. territories (the Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas), as well as the 10 Canadian provinces.

The NABP has two programs to guide consumers in choosing an online pharmacy: the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program and a process for verifying websites with the ".pharmacy" domain.

The VIPPS program screens the quality of an online pharmacy's services in 17 areas, including its methods for filling prescriptions, protecting consumer information, and communicating with customers.

A certified company will have the VIPPS seal on its website. However, the concern that the VIPPS logo could be easily copied and used fraudulently led NABP to develop a second measure the ".Pharmacy" Verified Websites program.

Online pharmacies can use a specific web address with the .pharmacy domain to assure consumers that the website they are visiting to purchase prescriptions is legitimate.

Both U.S. and non-U.S. pharmacies can apply to the .Pharmacy program, as long as they meet the eligibility requirements. Having and maintaining an approved .pharmacy domain is required for pharmacies seeking VIPPS accreditation.

The NABP provides a searchable database of websites that have been approved by either program. The list can also be downloaded as an Excel file. The website also provides a list of VIPPS accredited pharmacies.

An online pharmacy accredited by these organizations will be listed as an approved pharmacy on the NABP or FDA website, have a .pharmacy domain, and/or have the VIPPS seal.

According to the NABP, 95.7% of the online drug companies they review are not in compliance with state or federal regulations. To help consumers make informed decisions, the NABP also provides a Not Recommended List of rogue sites.

FDA

The NABP works with the FDA to determine which online pharmacies receive the VIPPS seal of approval. Since the NABP represents the 50 state boards that license pharmacies, only those that are based in the U.S. can receive the VIPPS seal. Non-U.S. pharmacies may, however, apply to the .Pharmacy program.

The FDA also provides a resource to help consumers determine whether an online pharmacy is properly licensed. Consumers can also report pharmacies that appear to be selling and mailing medications illegally.

The FDA states that it is illegal for consumers to import an unapproved drug into the U.S. Furthermore, it's illegal for any person, company, or foreign pharmacy to ship prescription medications to the U.S. that are not FDA-approved. This is true even if the pharmacy could legally sell the drug in its own country.

Canadian Pharmacies

Americans may choose to order medications from Canada where they are often cheaper. Many pharmacies are approved by the Canadian International Pharmacy Association (CIPA). However, consumers should keep in mind that just because a pharmacy has "Canada" in its name doesn't mean it's a Canadian pharmacy.

Consumers can protect themselves from fraudulent pharmacies by paying attention to warnings issued by the Canadian government as well as checking CIPA's list of verified online pharmacies.

PharmacyChecker

PharmacyChecker is a for-profit company that verifies both U.S. and foreign online drugstores. Consumers can also conduct price comparisons for specific medications and check ratings from consumers based on a five-star rating system.

To receive the PharmacyChecker “seal of approval," pharmacies must meet several requirements, including but not limited to:

  • Requiring a valid prescription from a licensed physician
  • Dispensing medications through a pharmacy licensed in the United States, Canada, or other country accepted by PharmacyChecker
  • Assuring that the medical and financial information consumers send is kept private and secured
  • Providing accurate and transparent information regarding location and contact on its website, including the company's address and phone number

A Word From Verywell

Consumers have an increasing number of options for convenient ways to purchase prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. Using an online pharmacy can be a cost-effective and convenient way to fill your prescriptions, but you'll want to do your research to verify an online pharmacy is safe and legal.

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Article Sources

  1. Gill, L. Looking for cheaper meds from Canada? Not so fast. Consumer Reports. Published August 7, 2019.

  2. US Food and Drug Administration. Is it legal for me to personally import drugs? Updated March 2018.

  3. US Food And Drug Administration. Imported drugs raise safety concerns. January 2018.

  4. US Food And Drug Administration. The possible dangers of buying medicines over the internet. January 2018.

  5. Cicero TJ, Ellis MS. Health outcomes in patients using no-prescription online pharmacies to purchase prescription drugsJ Med Internet Res. 2012;14(6):e174. doi:10.2196/jmir.2236

  6. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Internet Drug Outlet Identification Program Progress Report for State and Federal Regulators: February 2018.; 2018.

  7. US Food And Drug Administration. Reporting unlawful sales of medical products on the internet. March 2018.

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