How to Find an Online Pharmacy You Can Trust

Michael Bihari, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician, health educator, and medical writer, and president emeritus of the Community Health Center of Cape Cod.

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Lisa Sullivan, MS, is a nutritionist and health and wellness educator with nearly 20 years of experience in the healthcare industry.

With the rising costs of many prescription drugs and changes to health insurance coverage, an increasing number of Americans are filling their prescriptions through online pharmacies. A Consumer Reports survey from 2017 found that around 3.4 million Americans had purchased at least one of their medications online in the last year to save money.

Online pharmacies can be a reliable, easy, efficient, safe, and private way to buy prescription and over-the-counter medications. However, it can be tricky to know if you are buying from a legitimate business.

Before you buy from an online pharmacy, you’ll want to find out whether it’s properly licensed. Organizations such as the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), PharmacyChecker, and the Canadian International Pharmacy Association (CIPA) evaluate online drugstores for the quality and safety of their services.

Potential Dangers

There are a number of potential problems with online pharmacies. While there are laws to protect consumers, those laws have limitations.   Even with laws in place, a dishonest business may work hard to get around the rules.

Dangers of Online Pharmacies

  • Medications may be counterfeit
  • Medications may not be approved
  • Wrong medications could be sold/sent
  • Medications may be sold without a medical professional’s prescription
  • Protection for consumers’ personal information (including payment information) may not exist

While the FDA regulates prescription drugs in the U.S., it cannot monitor the safety and efficacy of imported products. Websites selling medications that are not FDA-approved can pop up seemingly overnight and disappear just as quickly. Therefore, little can be done if consumers receive counterfeit drugs or are victims of a scam.

What to Look For

It is perfectly legal to get your medications from an online pharmacy, but not all online pharmacies follow legal guidelines. There are a number of things that you should consider when searching for a legitimate online pharmacy.

Check with your health insurance. If your health insurance plan offers prescription coverage, ask your insurer for a list of approved online pharmacies. Companies vet pharmacies before accepting them as suppliers, so you can trust that a pharmacy on their approved list is a legitimate option.

However, if a pharmacy is not approved by your health insurer, it doesn’t mean the pharmacy is not legitimate—it only means that your insurance company and the pharmacy do not have a business agreement with each other.

Be sure that the pharmacy requires a doctor’s prescription. If an online pharmacy allows you to call in a prescription for yourself, it’s a major red flag that the business is not legitimate. Likewise, if a pharmacy provides a doctor to write a prescription for you (often without an exam), this practice is unsafe and illegal.

Watch out for unusual prices. If you are paying for your prescriptions yourself, you’ll likely want to shop around to save money. While there are some legitimate ways to save money on prescription medications, if you find an online pharmacy with unrealistically low or high prices, be wary.

Make sure the pharmacy has a physical address. If a pharmacy claims to be in the U.S. or Canada, confirm the business has a physical street address in one of those countries. A P.O. box address can be a sign that the pharmacy is not actually located where the name implies.

Verifying Your Online Pharmacy

In addition to looking for red flags, there are important resources you can use to confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate and licensed pharmacy. The criteria for these resources often overlap and can be used together to help you verify an online pharmacy.

The majority of online pharmacies are rejected by these organizations. In 2017, a report from the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP) found that as many as 96% of online pharmacies are noncompliant with federal and/or state laws.

In the U.S., pharmacists and pharmacies are licensed by state boards. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) is a nonprofit association of the boards of pharmacy in each of the 50 U.S. states, U.S. territories (the Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas), as well as the 10 Canadian provinces.  

The NABP offers a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) accredidation program for online pharmacies.   The VIPPS program screens the quality of an online pharmacy’s services, including its methods for filling prescriptions, protecting consumer information, and communicating with customers.

A certified company will have the VIPPS seal on its website. However, the concern that the VIPPS logo could be easily copied and used fraudulently led NABP to develop a second measure the .Pharmacy Verified Websites Program.  

Online pharmacies can use a specific web address with the .pharmacy domain to assure consumers that the website they are visiting to purchase prescriptions is legitimate.

Both U.S. and non-U.S. pharmacies can apply to the .pharmacy program, as long as they meet the eligibility requirements.   Having and maintaining an approved .pharmacy domain is required for pharmacies seeking VIPPS accreditation.

The NABP provides a searchable database of websites that have been approved by either program; the list of approved online pharmacies can also be downloaded.  

An online pharmacy accredited by these organizations will be listed as an approved pharmacy on the NABP or FDA website, have a .pharmacy domain, and/or have the VIPPS seal.

According to the NABP, nearly 96% of the online drug companies they reviewed were not in compliance with state or federal regulations. To help consumers make informed decisions, the NABP provides a list of rogue online pharmacy sites that are not recommended.

The NABP works with the FDA to determine which online pharmacies receive the VIPPS seal of approval. Since the NABP represents the 50 state boards that license pharmacies, only those that are based in the U.S. can receive the VIPPS seal. Non-U.S. pharmacies may, however, apply to the .pharmacy program.

The FDA also provides a resource to help consumers determine whether an online pharmacy is properly licensed. Consumers can also report pharmacies that appear to be selling and mailing medications illegally.

The FDA states that it is illegal for consumers to import an unapproved drug into the U.S. Furthermore, it’s illegal for any person, company, or foreign pharmacy to ship prescription medications to the U.S. that are not FDA-approved.

Canadian Pharmacies

Americans may choose to order medications from Canada where they are often cheaper. Many pharmacies are approved by the Canadian International Pharmacy Association (CIPA). However, consumers should keep in mind that just because a pharmacy has “Canada” in its name doesn’t mean it’s a Canadian pharmacy.

Consumers can protect themselves from fraudulent pharmacies by paying attention to warnings issued by the Canadian government, as well as checking CIPA’s list of verified online pharmacies.  

PharmacyChecker

PharmacyChecker is a for-profit company that verifies both U.S. and foreign online drugstores. Consumers can also conduct price comparisons for specific medications and check ratings from consumers based on a five-star rating system.

To receive the PharmacyChecker “seal of approval,” pharmacies must meet several requirements, including but not limited to:

  • Requiring a valid prescription from a licensed physician
  • Dispensing medications through a pharmacy licensed in the U.S., Canada, or other country accepted by PharmacyChecker
  • Assuring that consumers’ medical and financial information is private and secured
  • Providing accurate and transparent information regarding location and contact on its website, including the company’s address and phone number

A Word From Verywell

Consumers have an increasing number of options for convenient ways to purchase prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. Using an online pharmacy can be a cost-effective and convenient way to fill your prescriptions, but you’ll want to do your research to verify an online pharmacy is safe and legal.