Virtual shopping kept businesses afloat in the most challenging times, and the trend shows no signs of stopping.
Currently, over two billion shoppers get products and services from online shops worldwide, including pharmaceutical products. In Australia, for instance, the online drug sales industry has raked in USD$ 387.1 million as of July this year, growing at 4.5% annually from 2017 and 2022. Similarly, a 2017 US Consumer Report discovered about 3.4 million Americans had bought at least one medication from online pharmacies.
Besides being accessible and convenient, some digital drugstores offer exclusive discounts and free shipping deals on prescription and over-the-counter medications –making them a great choice for consumers who want to save time and costs. On the downside, some cyber criminals could use this platform to operate illegal businesses and sell fake medications.
Hence, knowing how to spot fraudulent sites is crucial to ensure your and your family’s safety. To help you get started, this article provides insights on picking a reliable and legitimate online pharmacy that won’t compromise your health.
- Do Your Research
The drug industry is highly regulated because of the potential safety risks of accessing fake and illegal medical products. These strict regulations also cover online pharmacies operating in different countries, like Wizard Pharmacy Australia and similar digital stores.
For instance, Australian laws require that pharmacies, whether maintaining a physical or online store, must be operated by a duly-recognized pharmacist. Otherwise, the pharmacy must partner with someone with a valid pharmacist’s license.
The drugstore must also be recognized by the country’s Therapeutic Goods Administration and licensed under the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act 1996. Besides these licenses, the business should also be registered with the Australian Securities & Investments Commission and have a business number.
While drug regulatory laws vary from country to country, having credentials and licenses are often the general requirements for online pharmacies worldwide. Hence, before buying from an e-Commerce merchant, it’s important to do a background check, like reviewing buyer’s reviews and scanning the company’s sites.
- Check For Possible Red Flags
While physical drugstores can’t operate without appropriate licenses and permits, online stores can be up and running in no time. With thousands of websites in the virtual space, fake and unsafe drugstores can sometimes escape the watchful eye of regulatory agencies.
With that, take note of the following signs, which could mean that you’re looking at a fake or illegal online pharmacy:
- The store doesn’t require buyers to present a valid prescription
- It doesn’t have certifications or licenses issued in your country
- The pharmacy offers medications at rock-bottom prices
- It boasts free worldwide shipping
- Sells medicines that you’ve never heard of before
- Posts products that are highly regulated in your country
- Sells products that look nothing like the one you have and still claims they’re selling authentic items
- Has no secure payment channel
- Ships out medicines in a different language or with evidence of tampering
- Offers items with no expiration date or with printing errors or defects on the label
These sites often display misleading information and lure consumers by duplicating the domain name and logos of the most popular drugstores. Besides selling potentially counterfeit medications, these stores may also sell unapproved products or engage in unsafe handling and storing practices—which can negatively impact the efficacy of pharmaceutical products.
How else can online pharmacies be considered illegal?
Besides the abovementioned risky practices, illegal online pharmacies are businesses that engage in the following practices per the US Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA):
- Selling prescription medications without a prescription, directions for safe use, required warnings, and ambiguous safety and efficacy information
- No physical address or telephone number in the US.
- Operating without a valid pharmacy license
- Does not employ licensed pharmacists
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) has found that up to 95% of web-based pharmacies violated any of the said regulations. Note that the laws may vary slightly from country to country, but most territories’ fundamental rules remain the same.
- Ask Your Health Insurance Provider For A List Of Approved Online Pharmacies
Your health insurance provider can be a good source of information for reputable online pharmacies. These companies often keep a list of trusted drugstores, which often act as suppliers that insurers have vetted based on specific criteria, including diligence in following stringent federal and state rules.
However, you can still transact with your online pharmacy of choice even if it isn’t on the list. But only after you’re sure that the store is safe and legitimate.
- Validate Your Online Pharmacy’s Legitimacy
Government and private organizations have online facilities that can help confirm and validate business information and licenses cited on a drugstore’s site. You can also email any of the agencies about your concerns.
In the US, Canada, and Australia, for instance, you can contact the following for concerns about drug safety and efficacy, individual pharmacist licenses, and the legitimacy of operations by an online pharmacy:
- National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP)
- US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Canadian International Pharmacy Association (CIPA)
- General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC in the UK)
- Australian Pharmacy Council (for pharmacist’s license only)
- Therapeutic Goods Administration (Australia)
- PharmacyChecker (US, Canada, Australia, and other countries)
Generally, every country has different regulatory bodies to oversee the selling and distribution of pharmaceutical products. Find out which one exists in your country or state so you can validate a web-based pharmacy’s legitimacy.
- Minimize The Risks By Being Proactive
The list of red flags presented earlier can more or less give you ideas of what to look for when checking an online pharmacy. But apart from the accreditations, licenses, and seals, below are other essential points you must remember when choosing a safe web-based drugstore.
- Choose online drugstores that require a valid prescription
Doctors must only issue a prescription after seeing you in person or virtually. An online pharmacy that dispenses drugs without a physician’s order is a major red flag. Worse, an online drugstore issuing online prescriptions without an examination is deemed an illicit practice.
- The store must have a verifiable physical address, telephone number, email address, and other contact details
Some sites may have an address written on their website to reduce doubts that they’re operating illegally. Note the information and check online maps to confirm if the company is located at that address.
Avoid companies with only a PO box listed as a contact channel. Recipients use PO boxes in remote areas where mail deliveries aren’t possible. This method is also used by some people who want to keep their physical addresses confidential. Legitimate businesses don’t have anything to hide and must have multiple communication channels to serve and connect with their customers.
- Insist on talking with a licensed pharmacist to answer your queries and concerns
Try contacting the pharmacy by calling their telephone number or sending a message. A licensed pharmacist should be able to respond to you as soon as possible. These healthcare professionals are essential in any pharmacy because they are trained to explain drug formulations and the potential adverse effects of specific drug use. Online pharmacies that don’t have them are usually fraudulent.
- Don’t fall for low-priced medications
When an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Buying prescription medications generally entails costs that can put a dent in your wallet. Hence, it’s understandable to find the best deals online and offline. For instance, most would ask their doctors for generic medications, while others use coupons and other promotions for discounts.
However, be wary if you find an online pharmacy that offers insanely low drug prices. Either the offer is a complete sham, or this illegal store sells counterfeit or unapproved drugs from questionable sources.
Online pharmacies must adhere to their countries’ data privacy and protection laws. At the minimum, they must be transparent about the type of information they collect and why and explain how the data is used or if it’s shared with third parties.
Most sites will collect basic information such as name, billing and shipping address, contact details, credit or debit card number, or insurance information. With the sensitive nature of data, the site must take all possible means to ensure that your personal and financial information is safe.
The Dangers Of Buying From Illicit Online Pharmacies
Buying from illicit online pharmacies can be more harmful than you think. Without regulations to monitor how they source, handle, store, and ship these commodities, these illegal online merchants can sell products that are:
- counterfeit expired, or mislabeled
- contain toxic, ineffective compounds, or no active ingredient
- produced by questionable sources without stringent safety protocols
- tainted with prohibited or illegal substances
Drugs that haven’t been tested for safety by a manufacturer, a contract development and manufacturing company (CDMO), and regulatory bodies shouldn’t be released on the market. And if they are, pharmacies must ensure that these drugs are stored and handled properly.
Whatever the risk, taking counterfeit, prohibited, or potentially toxic drugs can cause major health issues or may be unsafe or fatal when ingested. For instance, it can interact with other medications and causes adverse reactions because of the low-quality and prohibited substances.
It can be challenging to spot unsafe pharmacy websites, especially when a fraudulent site copies a popular company’s storefront or make false claims to deceive buyers. Hence, before transacting online, take time to verify if it’s legitimate. You can do this by looking at the permits, licenses, and recognitions from regulatory bodies and having them validated online. Moreover, look out for the red flags, and don’t transact with stores that are only after your money.
Taking a proactive approach to purchasing medicines online can help ensure you get high-quality, safe, effective, and money-saving products when needed.