By Don Vaughan

Each year, thousands of Americans turn to illicit online pharmacies to purchase prescription medications, unaware they might be putting their health in jeopardy and even risking their lives, law-enforcement officials warn.

Buyers turn to online pharmacies for a variety of reasons, notes Jim Dahl of the Partnership for Safe Medicines in Vienna, Va. Many are uninsured and simply trying to save money on drugs they need to treat a specific illness or medical condition. Others are seeking lifestyle drugs such as Viagra or performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids. “Even more frightening are the pharmacists and physicians who use illicit websites just to enrich themselves,” Dahl adds.

However, because most online pharmacies are unregulated, consumers have no idea what they are buying. The medications they receive might be expired, contain no active ingredients or the wrong ingredients, or be made with dangerous substances. (Dahl has seen counterfeit drugs containing everything from lead paint to rat poison.) The drugs also might have been stolen, manufactured in unsanitary conditions, or improperly stored.

“When you step outside of the regulated supply system, you are dealing with a complete unknown,” says Dahl, a former criminal investigator with the Food and Drug Administration. “It's undocumented, unsafe, and illegal.” How bad is the problem? In 2015, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy surveyed more than 11,000 online pharmacy websites and found only 257 were legitimate pharmacies. 

The best way to protect yourself is to avoid illicit pharmacies and instead rely on companies with a regulated online presence, which includes most major drug chains, Dahl says. And don't assume just because an online pharmacy is based in Canada that it's safe. “The order may be placed in Canada, but if you read the fine print, you'll find that the drugs are coming from Turkey or India or somewhere else,” Dahl notes. “The only thing Canadian about these operations is that the bad guys live in Winnipeg or Vancouver.”

For more information on how to recognize counterfeit drugs, visit http://www.safemedicines.org/consumer_resources  or http://bit.ly/2b0v9i6.