Prescription Drug Assistance Programs

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If you are thinking about buying drugs online

The American Cancer Society does not have an official policy on buying drugs online or in other countries, but you might find this information helpful.

Safety first

Buying prescription drugs online may save you about 20% to 30%, but in most cases, there’s no way to guarantee the product’s safety. Counterfeit drugs are everywhere. If you buy medical products online, be aware that:

  • Buying medicines from an illegal website puts you at risk. You might get a tainted or fake product, the wrong product, the wrong dose, or a pill with no active ingredient at all. (Read on to learn how to find trustworthy websites.)
  • Taking an unsafe medicine puts you at risk for serious health problems and harmful drug interactions. When illegal websites sell drugs that are not what they’re supposed to be, you don’t know what you are taking. If you get the wrong medicine, it won’t help the health problem it was prescribed for. There is also no way to avoid the risk of serious drug interactions and unexpected or unknown side effects.
  • Getting a prescription drug by filling out a questionnaire without seeing a doctor can be very risky to your health. When you fill out a questionnaire, the answers often do not give a health care professional enough information to decide a drug is right for you, safe for you to use, whether another treatment may be better, or if you have an underlying medical condition that could make using that drug harmful to you. The American Medical Association has found that this practice is generally below the standard for medical care – it’s best to see a doctor.

What to look for in an online pharmacy

Consider these tips for finding a trustworthy pharmacy when buying health products online:

  • Contact the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (at www.nabp.net or 847-391-4406) to find out if a website is a licensed pharmacy in good standing. They also have a special section with information about buying drugs online, counterfeit drugs, and websites to avoid.
  • Check the pharmacy’s website for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy’s Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites Seal™, also known as a VIPPS® Seal.
  • Look for easy-to-find and easy-to-understand privacy and security policies. Don’t give out personal information (your social security number, date of birth, credit card number, or health history) unless you are sure that the site will protect this information. Make sure the site will not share your information with others without your permission.

What to avoid in online pharmacies

  • Don’t buy from sites that offer to do any of these things: Prescribe a prescription drug for the first time without a physical exam; sell a prescription drug without a prescription; or sell drugs not approved by FDA.
  • Avoid sites that do not identify with whom you are dealing. This includes those that send “spam” emails to strangers to advertise their drugs.
  • Don’t buy from sites that do not provide a US address and phone number to contact if there’s a problem. Look at the “Contact Us” page on the website to find this before you place an order. Sites that offer only email or internet contact information are more likely to be based in a country different from the one they claim. Some could even be hiding from regulators or government authorities.
  • Don’t do business with sites that do not have a registered pharmacist to answer questions.

Other tips for safer purchases from online pharmacies

  • It’s illegal to import drugs bought from foreign websites. The risks are greater, and very little can be done if you get ripped off. Be aware that some websites do not tell the truth about which country they ship from. Many sites that have claimed to be Canadian, for instance, turn out not to be in Canada. The drugs were not made in Canada, either.
  • Talk to your health care professional before using any medicines for the first time.
  • See the “To learn more” section for information from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on how to safely order drugs online.

Fraud alert

There are websites that use fraud to get people looking for cheaper drugs to buy other things, like “natural cures,” secret remedies, and herbs. They are often set up outside the United States, which makes it hard for US authorities to track them down despite the fact that they violate US laws and safety regulations.

  • Beware of sites that advertise a “new cure” for a serious illness or a quick cure-all for a wide range of illnesses.
  • Be careful of sites that use pictures and impressive-sounding words to hide their lack of good science and careful studies.
  • Avoid sites that claim the government, the medical profession, or research scientists have worked together to keep people from finding out about or using a product.
  • Steer clear of sites that offer stories claiming amazing results as the main proof that their product works. These stories are usually impossible to verify; and even if they are true, they don’t mean that the product caused the good outcome.

For more information about products that are not part of mainstream health care, see our document called Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer.

To check out claims of new cancer treatments or cures, see Learning About New Cancer Treatments. This document explains the process that new treatments must go through before they are approved for general use.


Last Medical Review: 10/18/2013
Last Revised: 11/05/2013