Medication costs in the United States have risen steeply over the last two decades, leading many Americans to turn to online pharmacies that offer a wide variety of prescription drugs at discount prices. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of these sites do not operate legally. According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, only about 5% of online pharmacies  operate in compliance with patient safety standards and other statutory requirements.

The risks of purchasing prescription drugs online can be severe. In addition to selling counterfeit, expired, ineffective or even toxic medications, some online pharmacies are fronts for individuals looking to gather personal data and commit identity theft or other fraud crimes. Another troublesome aspect that online buyers may not realize: They could run the risk of breaking federal law themselves and getting caught up in a criminal investigation.

When might buying prescription drugs online be illegal?

Except in select cases, it is against federal law to import non-FDA approved medications into the United States for personal use. The DEA also prohibits purchasing controlled substances online without a valid prescription from a doctor. Examples of federally controlled drugs include certain types of narcotic pain medications, stimulants, anabolic steroids and sedatives.

What constitutes a valid prescription?

A valid prescription must come from a doctor who has personally examined the patient, knows his or her medical history and has decided that the patient has a legitimate need for the prescribed medication. Under federal law, the prescription must include the following information:

  • Name and strength of the drug
  • Quantity prescribed, dosage of each pill and directions for use
  • Both the patient’s and doctor’s name and address
  • Date of issue and number of authorized refills
  • The doctor’s DEA registration number and signature

How can patients tell if an online pharmacy is legitimate?

Individuals looking to purchase prescription drugs online should be careful to research the site thoroughly and avoid any seller that does not require a legitimate, doctor-issued prescription. When visiting the site, patients should look for the pharmacy domain name at the end of the web address, which indicates that the NABP has verified the site’s validity. Individuals should also to check to be certain that the pharmacy is on the list of Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites.