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Risks, Legalities of Using Online Pharmacies

Updated on February 7, 2018

Online Pharmacies

Using an online pharmacy can be dangerous for consumers who are only attempting to afford prescription medications. Many of the pharmacies encountered over the internet are not pharmacies at all and/or are operating without a license. Sometimes when an online pharmacy is in violation of U.S. laws, this causes the consumer to be in violation of U.S. laws, too.

Many online pharmacies claim to offer generic versions of drugs when one is not available. Some online pharmacies are fly-by-night companies, sell counterfeit drugs and/or expired drugs, dispense medication without a prescription and/or sell medication that has been sold and shipped from wholesaler to wholesaler to wholesaler.

There are legitimate online pharmacies, but there are precautions that need to be taken in order for consumers to protect themselves.

Counterfeit Drug Investigations by FDA

Cases of counterfit drug investigations have risen steadily since 2001.
Cases of counterfit drug investigations have risen steadily since 2001. | Source

Why a Black Market Exists for Prescription Drugs

Most foreign countries, just like the United States, grant patents and exclusivity rights to drug companies that allow drug companies to exclusively market a drug. However, most foreign countries have legislation and a separate governmental agency that regulates the cost of prescription drugs. This is true in almost every foreign country. Not only does this ensure that its citizens are able to afford life-saving medications, but it also nearly eliminates the need for its citizens to look for cheaper alternatives, including a black market full of counterfeit, dangerous drugs that pose health and safety risks.

In contrast, The United States does not regulate prescription drug costs. The U.S. allows drug companies to determine the costs of prescription medications, no matter how outrageous. Although the idea of regulating the cost of prescription drugs has been tossed around, many argue that this would cause drug companies to stop offering its products in America. This, despite the fact that Americans have, for years, looked to foreign countries for the same prescription drugs that are offered in the U.S.

Additionally, generous U.S. patent laws and exclusivity rights are granted to drug companies that bars competition for years and years. This will sometimes cause a generic drug to be available in other countries before being available in the United States, including generic drugs that are manufactured by the brand-name drug manufacturer.

U.S. patent laws and lack of price regulation does fuel a black market for counterfeit drugs sold by illegal, online pharmacies, referred to as rogue pharmacies. The dangers associated with doing business with rogue pharmacies are very real.

Legalities and Risks of Using Online Pharmacies

Is it illegal to order prescription drugs from online pharmacies?

Is it dangerous to order prescription drugs from online pharmacies?

These are two questions that must be asked and answered at the same time, because they go hand in hand.


The above picture is from the DEA’s (Drug Enforcement Agency) website.

The DEA’s website also states: Buying drugs online may be illegal and dangerous!

These statements do not indicate whether or not purchasing prescription drugs online is illegal or under what circumstances ordering prescription drugs online is allowed. It is a very general and broad statement. This is because the legalities depend upon how the medication is ordered, dispensed and shipped.

The Dangers of Rogue Pharmacies:

Medications sold through rogue pharmacies may not be safe:

The drugs may be counterfeit, either fake or copy-cat drugs.

The drugs may be tainted or contain dangerous ingredients.

The drugs may be expired.

The drugs may be too strong or too weak.

The drugs may not be safe with other medications that you take.

The drugs may not be FDA approved.

The drugs may not be handled properly (i.e. labeled, stored, and shipped).

The drugs may have been manufactured in another country, shipped to another country (and another country, etc.). This increases the possibility that the drugs have been repackaged and replaced with something other than the original contents.

How to Verify an Online Pharmacy is Legitimate, Legal and Safe

The online pharmacy will require a prescription. A pharmacy that doesn’t require a prescription or claims it can write you one is in violation of U.S. law.

Even the cheapest drug store will require a prescription for medication, and online pharmacies are not any different, including pharmacies located in foreign countries. If you do not have a prescription, not only is the pharmacy a rogue pharmacy and in violation of U.S. laws, but you are in violation of the law, too. Penalties for obtaining a medication without a valid prescription varies, depending upon the type of drug obtained, and can include prison.

If the online pharmacy claims that it can give you a prescription, this, too, is illegal. Not only is this practice illegal in the United States, but it is also illegal in most foreign countries.

If you do have a prescription, you need to make sure that the online pharmacy requires a prescription from all of its customers. If a prescription is not required for all clients, you are putting your health and safety at risk, as the online pharmacy is not operating legally, and the chances that you are receiving counterfeit and/or dangerous drugs is very high.

It doesn’t matter if the medication is for pain and is a controlled substance or the medication is to treat high cholesterol--a prescription will ALWAYS be required by a legitimate online pharmacy.

The online pharmacy will have a licensed pharmacist that you can SPEAK with and who can answer your questions.

If you are unable to speak with a licensed pharmacist, the pharmacy is not legitimate. Every pharmacy in the United States, as well as foreign countries, must have a pharmacist available. Understand that e-mail or instant messaging does not qualify as speaking with a pharmacist. Verify that there is a phone number where a pharmacist can be reached.

The online pharmacy should be located in the United States and be licensed by the State Board of Pharmacy in which it operates.

The FDA states that online pharmacies should be located in the United States, as this government agency has been cracking down on internet pharmacies, especially in Canada, that mail prescription drugs to American consumers. So, if you don't want to find a letter in your mailbox from the U.S. govenment informing you that your medications have been seized, make sure that the pharmacy is licensed in the state in which it operates.

(Please see Part 3, The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act – What’s with the FDA?)

Two Resources to Utilize for Online Pharmacy Verification

Rather than verifying all of this data for each online pharmacy that consumers happen upon, the easiest way to ensure that an online pharmacy is legitimate and operating within the scope of U.S. laws is to utilize one of two sources, or both, according to the FDA.

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy

The first source is the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). The NAPB grants accreditation--a voluntary accreditation--to online pharmacies that adheres to both state and federal regulations and follows NAPB standards. This accreditation is: “Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites” (VIPPS).

There is a list of VIPPS accredited pharmacies on the NAPB’s website.

The NAPB recently reviewed over 8,000 online pharmacies and classified 96% of those as rogue pharmacies. NAPB’s results:

--85% do not require a valid prescription

--46% offer foreign or non-FDA-approved drugs

--64% use an online questionnaire to evaluate patient health and medication needs, which can be very dangerous

--26% are located outside of the United States and selling drugs illegally to patients in the U.S.

There is also an extensive list of online pharmacies that are not recommended by the NAPB.

The NAPB also indicates that there are some internet pharmacies that are not accredited through its process but are still legitimate, referring consumers to, which is the second source for consumers to verify that an online pharmacy is legitimate. This website follows the NAPB’s guidelines when determining if an online pharmacy is safe and is adhering to federal and state laws.

For Legitscript, the consumer only needs to input the online pharmacy’s web address to find information about an online pharmacy.

Currently, out of over 90,000 pharmacies in its database, only 326 are found to be legitimate by Legitscript.

Best Reference for Cost-Comaprisons for Online Pharmacies

The NAPB also refers consumers to Pharmahelper in order to perform cost-comparisons for prescription medications.

What Happened to PharmacyChecker?

PharmacyChecker was founded in 2002, and it was designed to help consumers find the lowest prices on prescription medications and verified which online pharmacies were safe for consumers. These online pharmacies were located in the United States and other countries around the world.

PharmacyChecker was also utilized by Google to monitor advertisements on webpages, ensuring that only reputable pharmacies were advertised.

Google has since terminated its contract with Pharmacychecker, although PharmacyChecker is still in existence and operating.

Google now relies on VIPPS and to verify the pharmacies that are advertised on webpages are pharmacies that are reputable and located only in the United States. Google is in the process of paying $500 million dollars to the U.S. government for its role in displaying “illegal” Canadian pharmacy advertisements and assisting Americans with the purchase of prescription drugs from Canada.

More information on this can be found at my other hub, The Conspiracy to Deny Americans Affordable Prescription Drugs.

 How To Report a Suspected Rogue Pharmacy

If you come across an online pharmacy that you suspect is illegal, you can report it through the NAPB or the FDA.


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    • Healthy Pursuits profile image

      Karla Iverson 6 years ago from Oregon

      Good hub! Just a couple of comments: Walmart now has 30-day Rx's for $4, and 90-day Rx's for $10. The list of drugs can be found on their website. Walgreen's and other pharmacies also have discounted drug lists.

      In Europe, the same pharmaceutical companies that operate in the U.S. distribute their drugs under slightly different names, colors or shapes, so if a legit online pharmacy could be found, it could be safely used. Also, European countries aren't as parental as the U.S. They don't demand prescriptions for all of the same drugs that we do. They realize that they're working with adults, and that some conditions just don't need that much physician oversight. I've been able to get thyroid medication in the past online from France, and it was real medication from the same company that sold it here for about 8 times as much. (Unfortunately, they stopped selling online.) That said, there are just as many crooks in Europe as there are anywhere else, so I don't know how someone could sniff out a legit online pharmacy and tell it from the rats.