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Online and Mail-Order Pharmacies: How to Be Safe

By Joanne Barker
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

People get deals on shoes, travel, and appliances online. Why not prescription drugs? You can find lower prices and convenience through mail-order or online pharmacies. Just be careful.

"Rogue" pharmacies use the Internet to market counterfeit drugs. You could end up with something that doesn’t treat your condition and could harm your health.

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In this article, WebMD helps you find the real deals at mail-order and online pharmacies.  

Mail-Order Pharmacies = Convenience and Lower Costs

Many insurers and some retail pharmacies now offer drugs by mail order. These companies ship prescribed drugs to your home so you don’t have to pick them up in person. Often you can get a three-month supply at a reduced cost. The convenience and savings can pay off in surprising ways. Kaiser Permanente in Oakland found that patients who used its mail-order pharmacy were more likely to take the drugs as prescribed.

4 Signs of a Legitimate Pharmacy Web Site

  • U.S. Location and License  
    Pharmacies that operate in the U.S. undergo heavy scrutiny in order to be licensed by state boards of pharmacy. "There are a lot of legitimate mail-order pharmacies in this country," says Richard Sagall, MD, president of NeedyMeds, a Massachusetts nonprofit that provides information about financial assistance for drugs.  
  • Verified Pharmacy Practice Site
    The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy® (NABP®) inspects Internet pharmacies and awards a "VIPPS" seal (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites™ Seal) to those that meet its criteria. But watch out, some rogue sites flaunt fake seals. You can look up VIPPS-accredited pharmacies on the NABP web site.
  • Prescription Required
    Any trustworthy pharmacy will insist on a prescription from a health care provider who has seen you in person. That doctor can monitor you for any side effects from the drug. "Some side effects are so subtle you won’t be aware of them," says Sagall, "like an electrolyte imbalance that you can only detect by doing blood work."
  • Real People on the Phone
    You should be able to talk with a human being, including a licensed pharmacist, to answer questions about your prescription.

Online Pharmacies Often Deliver the Wrong Goods

Although mail-order pharmacies usually have a web site, the similarity between mail order and many online pharmacies ends there. In a review of 8,000 online pharmacies, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy found only 4% that met its safety standards. "There are a lot of counterfeit drugs and [old] drugs that should have been destroyed but ended up back on the market," says Corey Sawaya, RPh, pharmacy manager of Acme Pharmacy in Stow, Ohio.

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