Buying Medicines Online

The internet offers a vast array of products for sale from websites all over the world. Buying medicines online is becoming increasingly popular, but medicines are not ordinary consumer goods and extreme caution should be exercised if you choose to purchase them in this way. This page covers some of the issues involved and offers tips on how to protect you and your family against receiving fake and/or dangerous medicines, as well as against fraudulent activity.

The risks

Medicines bought from spurious websites cannot be guaranteed to meet acceptable standards of quality, safety and effectiveness. Buying medicines from such sites increases the chances of receiving fake, substandard, dangerous or even life-threatening products.

Prescription-only medicines should be taken only in consultation with an appropriate healthcare professional, who will be familiar with your medical history and will not prescribe medicines which could be unsafe or unsuitable for you.  When prescribing medicines, healthcare professionals will also avoid combinations of different medicines which are not compatible with each other and may be harmful to your condition.

The specific risks of buying prescription-only medicines over the internet include:

  • Taking medicines that have not been prescribed by a healthcare professional.
  • Taking medicines that may cause other medicines you are already taking  not to work  – or to worsen an existing known or unknown medical condition.
  • Absence of checks and controls on the quality, safety and effectiveness of medicines supplied.
  • Counterfeit medicines that contain harmful ingredients. Actual examples of this have included rat poison, boric acid and lead-based road paint.
  • Taking medicines which contain too little or too much active ingredient – or no active ingredient at all.
  • Taking medicines that have passed their use-by date, reducing their effectiveness.
  • Buying condoms that provide substandard or no protection against sexaully transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy.
  • Taking medicines produced in unhygienic surroundings by people with no appropriate qualifications.
  • Mistaken self-diagnosis resulting in inappropriate treatment and failure to consult the appropriate healthcare professionals.
  • Having no legal options in the event of a problem.

Other risks of buying prescription-only medicines over the internet include:

  • Payment card cloning.
  • Identity theft.
  • Products being sold at a considerably higher price than they would cost from a high street pharmacy, despite being advertised as ‘cheap’.
  • Spyware and other viruses from fraudulent websites, whether you have visited them directly or via a phishing email.

Keeping safe

  • You should always consult an appropriate medical professional or registered pharmacist with any questions you have about a medical condition or how to treat it.
  • Do not be tempted into self-diagnosis.

And as with all kinds of online shopping, always observe the following precautions:

  • Do not reply to, or click on links contained in, unsolicited or spam emails from companies you don’t recognise.
  • Before entering payment card details on a website, ensure that the link is secure, in two ways:
    • There should be a padlock symbol in the browser window frame, which appears when you attempt to log in or register. Be sure that the padlock is not on the page itself … this will probably indicate a fraudulent site.
    • The web address should begin with ‘https://’. The ‘s’ stands for ‘secure’.
  • The above indicate only that the link between you and the website owner is secure, and not that the site itself is authentic. You need to do this by carefully checking the address for subtle misspellings, additional words and characters and other irregularities.
  • Double check all details of your purchase before confirming payment.
  • Some websites will redirect you to a third-party payment service (such as WorldPay). Ensure that these sites are secure before you make your payment.
  • Safeguard and remember the password you have chosen for the extra verification services used on some websites, such as Verified by Visa.
  • Check sellers’ privacy policy and returns policy.
  • Always log out of sites into which you have logged in or registered details. Simply closing your browser is not enough to ensure privacy.
  • Keep receipts.
  • Remember that paying by credit card offers greater protection than with other methods in terms of fraud, guarantees and non-delivery.
  • Check credit card and bank statements carefully after shopping to ensure that the correct amount has been debited, and also that no fraud has taken place as a result of the transaction.
  • Ensure you have effective and updated antivirus/antispyware software and firewall running before you go online.

Reporting counterfeit medicines

If you have purchased medicines or medical devices online that you believe may have been fake, or have any concerns or information that may assist us in tracking down those responsible for producing or selling fake medicines, report it to the police.

Jargon Buster

A Glossary of terms used in this article:


Malware that secretly monitors a user's activity or scans for private information.