Aug. 4, 2022 -- Many women seeking abortion pills online have unknowingly been ordering the pills from one of many fake clinics making false claims, pharmacy experts report.
While some online sites are licensed and legitimately connect consumers with the pills, the illegal sites may sell either counterfeit or expired pills or deliver no pills and just steal payment information. Al Carter, PharmD, executive director of the nonprofit National Association of Boards of Pharmacy says that since the the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June, there has been an increase in his team’s discovery of illegal online sites selling what they claim are abortion medications.
“Ninety-six percent of the online pharmacies out there are illegitimate,” he says. “They’re violating some type of state or federal law in almost every incidence.”
The court ruled that individual states could ban abortion procedures. The resulting patchwork of laws and access barriers have made conditions ripe for a growing black market online for mifepristone and misoprostol, two drugs used in combination to induce abortions.
Interest in the drugs soared after the Supreme Court ruling was leaked in May.
Within 3 days of the leak, online searches for abortion medications jumped 162% compared with the 3 days before the ruling, according to a report in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Among red flags that an abortion-pill website is fraudulent, Carter says, are that the site doesn’t ask for a prescription for the abortion drugs. Mifepristone and misoprostol can be legally accessed only with a prescription.
If there is no contact where you can speak with a pharmacist, that’s another clue, he says.
Sites that make false claims about abortion pills are growing just as the illegal sites that popped up in the pandemic peddling COVID-19 “cures” and non-approved vaccines and treatments, Carter says, adding that the same fear-based tactics are being used.
Where to Check Websites
The NABP is trying to bring attention to illegal websites not only for abortion drugs, but pain medications and others as well with its safe pharmacy site. There you can plug in the website address in question and check its legitimacy.
Libby Baney, JD, a senior adviser to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP), an advocacy group, says in addition to the NABP safe pharmacy site, they recommend that consumers looking for an online site to buy abortion pills check legitscript.com, which accredits legitimate online pharmacies and telemedicine companies.
“Verify before you buy,” she says. “It’s very easy to bypass the rules on the internet and operate anonymously from some unknown jurisdiction offering counterfeit or substandard pills.”
Baney says as more states consider banning access to abortion procedures and pills, the number of illegal websites will grow.
“Criminals are suppliers and there’s consumer demand,” she says.
The key is in checking the website address. Even sites that seem to belong to major chain pharmacies may have a slightly altered URL, she warns.
Consumers have become accustomed to trusting the first entries that come up on a browser search because they assume they have been vetted as the most accurate, Baney says. While that might work for checking a country’s capital, algorithms for buying online medicines should be viewed with caution.
According to a survey commissioned by ASOP, almost half (45%) of Americans mistakenly believe all websites offering health care services/prescription medications to Americans have been approved by the FDA or state regulators.
“This misconception is even higher (59%) among those who have previously purchased prescription medicines online,” the research says.
Baney warned against trusting an algorithm with online pharmacies selling abortion pills.
“Criminals know how to game it,” she says.