Consumer Reports: Risks of buying medication online

CHICAGO -- Almost 2 million Americans looking to save money buy medications online, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey. But government investigators have found that many rogue pharmacies peddle bad drugs online that can cause serious harm.

Most prescriptions are still filled in brick-and-mortar stores. But it can be tempting to try an online pharmacy from outside the U.S. that promises deep discounts on medications. Consumer Reports says beware.

"Pharmacies that pretend to operate out of Canada or other countries often sell drugs that are unapproved or even counterfeit. One big problem with that is that some of these drugs have been found to contain dangerous substances like toxic paint, or even rat poison," said Lisa Gill, Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs.

This summer the Food and Drug Administration took action against more than one thousand sites. But new ones keep cropping up.

One recent survey of 11,000 online pharmacies found that only about 4 percent were operating according to U.S. laws and standards.

"An obvious red flag when researching an online pharmacy: If it doesn't require a prescription, don't go near it. If it's legitimate, it will be state licensed and have a pharmacist that you can consult," Gill said.

There are some online sites you can trust. Those run by big-box stores like Costco, drugstore chains like Walgreens, or your local pharmacy meet all regulatory standards.

One way to tell whether an Internet pharmacy is safe and operates within the U.S, look for the seal from the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites program, or VIPPS.

You can save money on prescription drugs without going online. Many stores offer deeply discounted generic drugs, and some offer loyalty programs that give discounts to members.

You may think Canadian online pharmacies are okay. But many Internet pharmacies that claim to be Canadian are not. According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacies, most are fake storefronts selling low-quality products from overseas.

You can find advice on saving money on prescription drugs on Consumer Reports' website.

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