Searching for cheaper medications online: How to tell which sites are safe

Can cheaper prices online really mean you're getting a good deal? A study done by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy found that 95% of websites selling prescription drugs online are doing so illegally. Now, researchers are cracking down on online pharmacies that sell counterfeit pills by using high tech tracking software.

But there are some red flags that can help you figure out if a site is legitimate or not.

From 2006 to 2017, the prices for most chronic-use name brand prescription drugs soared 214%, which has driven people to go online in search of cheaper medications.

"An easy availability for anyone to go online and purchase these drugs even in bulk quantities and have them shipped directly to their home," said Gary Warner, the directorof research and computer forensics at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

And there can potentially be big problems when you do that.

"What people think they're taking is not what they are taking. Just in Arizona, they seized over 350,000 fentanyl pills that were labeled as oxycontin," Warner said.

But now researchers at UAB are partnering with Facebook to crack down on these illicit drug sales, especially when it comes to opioid use.

The team has developed an algorithm that can recognize the newest slang for street drugs, such as fentanyl, and automatically flag the content for removal so users can't get them.

They've also been cracking down on fake online pharmacies. Here are some ways to help you tell what's fake from real.

"The thing you want to look for when buying your drugs online are - do they really require a prescription?" said Elizabeth Gardner, PhD, from UAB.

If you aren't required to have a prescription, that's one possible sign the pharmacy you're looking at isn't legitimate. Some other tips: make sure they've got FDA approval. Even a generic drug needs one.

Another potential red flag of a rogue online pharmacy: they make the claim of selling prescriptions at deeply discounted prices.

Look to see if they have a U.S. licensed pharmacist available to answer your questions. Many fake sites won't offer that.

Another way to check on a website is to look for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy's Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice SitesTM seal.

This seal means that the internet pharmacy is safe to use because it has met state licensure requirements, as well as other criteria.

The dangers of buying from a site that's not legitimate can range from getting counterfeit drugs, to ones that are expired - even medications that may contain different ingredients.
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