Buying Health Products and Services Online
The web is convenient for comparing prescription drug prices, researching health products and services, and preparing for your next medical appointment. Use these tips to be smart and safe when researching health products and services online.
Before you give out any personal or financial information online, whether it’s to buy an item or get more information, remember that anyone can set up shop online. If you're thinking about buying a heath-related product from an unfamiliar company or website, do some research.
- Confirm the online seller's physical address (not just a P.O. Box) and phone number, so you know you can reach someone if you need to.
- Do a search for the company name and website, and be sure to look beyond the first page of results. If you find a lot of negative reviews, you are better off taking your business elsewhere.
- Look for indicators the site is secure, like a URL that begins with https (the "s" is for secure). But that’s not foolproof: security icons can be forged. Avoid sites that ask you to send personal or financial information by email, or ask you to wire cash through a money transfer service.
When you start your search for health products, services, or information, consider who's behind the information. Government websites (sites ending in .gov) are a good bet. Two great choices are MedlinePlus and Healthfinder.gov; both let you look up hundreds of health topics and the latest health headlines. So are university or medical school websites (.edu).
Nonprofit groups with a mission that focuses on research and teaching about specific conditions (their URLs typically end in .org) also can be good resources, like the American Heart Association or the American Cancer Society. MedlinePlus has a list of organizations that provide health information online. Keep in mind that ".org" doesn't guarantee a site is reputable. Scammers also can set up .org sites.
What looks like an online pharmacy could be a front for a scammer or identity thief. The sites may use official looking seals and logos, guarantee satisfaction or your money back, and "look" legitimate. All that can be faked.
You could end up with products that are fake, expired, or mislabeled, or products that contain dangerous ingredients. Or you may pay for a prescription and never get your order — or your money back.
So how can you tell if you're dealing with a legitimate U.S. pharmacy? To see if a pharmacy is licensed in the U.S., check with the board of pharmacy in the state where it's based. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) has information on each state's board. NABP also has a list of online pharmacies that meet its standards, and are accredited through its Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program. Reputable pharmacy websites should:
- require a prescription
- have a licensed pharmacist to answer your questions
- provide a physical business address and phone number
As you look for answers to your health questions, you might come across websites or ads for pills or other products that make big promises. They may say their product will cure a serious condition like arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer, HIV-AIDS, or a range of conditions. Or the ad might be for a weight loss pill that says you can lose weight without exercising or changing how you eat. The reality is that most of these “miracle” products are useless, and at best, a waste of money. Others are flat-out dangerous.
Don't trust a website just because it looks professional or has success stories from "real people." And don’t put much faith in products advertised as "scientific breakthroughs" or "ancient remedies," or ads that use scientific-sounding words like "thermogenesis" or safe-sounding words like "natural." Scammers can be creative. The stories may be made up, or the people may be actors or models paid to praise the product.
Ask your doctor about any product before you try it. Your doctor can tell you about the risks of a product, whether there are reputable studies to support the claims, and its effect on any medicine you're taking or treatments you're getting.
For more on health claims, visit ftc.gov/health.
If you think you may be a victim of health-related fraud, report it to:
- the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/complaint
- your state Attorney General, using contact information at naag.org
- your county or state consumer protection agency