1. Know where to go
Happily, nearly every big-box retailer and major drugstore chain has an online pharmacy, and many are expanding their digital presence. Walgreens, for instance, bought drugstore.com and visiondirect.com in 2011, while Walmart has now partnered with 1-800contacts.com. (Yes, it's safe to buy contacts and glasses online; all you need is a prescription and, for frames, your "pupillary distance," a measurement your eye doctor takes.) This trend keeps online pricing competitive, notes Heather Free, a pharmacist in Washington, D.C., and spokesperson for the American Pharmacy Association. Plus, she says, "you know these are brands you can trust." That's crucial, since sketchy sites peddling drug knockoffs aboundwhich is exactly why you should...
2. Vet any unfamiliar sites
Before you try a drugstore site with a name you've never heard before, consider this: Last fall, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shut down more than 4,000 Internet pharmacies selling counterfeit and unapproved medication. And back in 2010, FDA investigators discovered sites peddling "generic Tamiflu," a product that doesn't exist. Unlike real Tamiflu, which treats flu symptoms, these versions contained the unmarked antibiotic cloxacillina life-threatening ingredient for those with penicillin allergies.
"There are still plenty of rogue websites out there selling counterfeit over-the-counter and prescription drugs that look like regular store websites," cautions Brian Liang, MD, vice president of the Partnership for Safe Medicines. Sales of counterfeit contact lenses are also on the rise, according to the American Optometric Association.
For this reason, never buy medication, glasses, or contact lenses from websites based outside the United Statesthey're not subject to FDA oversight and regulations, Dr. Liang points out. Other safety checks: Look for a VIPPs seala voluntary accreditation program for online pharmacies sponsored by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacyon a drugstore homepage, or enter its name at legitscript.com. And if there's no requirement for a physical copy of your prescription, consider that a big red flag.
3. Get a bigger prescription
When it comes to medications you need regularlyfrom antidepressants to birth controlsome insurance companies now require you to sign up for a mail-order prescription plan where you get three months' worth of pills for just one co-pay. Sweet deal, right? There's actually no catch: These companies buy in bulk, Breyault says, and pass on those savings to consumers. If your insurance plan doesn't offer this, ask your doc for a 90-day prescription; just be sure to have 30 days' worth of the drug on hand when you order online, since it can take a few weeks to get set up in the pharmacy's system.
4. But don't bulk up on everything!
"Vitamins, allergy pills, and even things you don't think about, like bandages and cough drops, have expiration dates," Free points out. "Do the math to make sure you'll really use them up, so that the savings are worth it." An even more convenient (and cost-effective) way to get bulk deliveries: Amazon's Subscribe and Save program, which lets you sign up for recurring shipments of household basicsfrom OTC allergy meds to toilet paperfor up to 5 percent off their prices plus free shipping. You may never have to do a late-night dash to the drugstore again!
Online drug shockers: Beware!
Dangerous substitutions. An iffy site may peddle fake drugs with too much or too little of the active ingredient they're supposed to haveor they can be a different med altogether. In one case, Brian Liang, MD, says, patients ordering Ambien or Xanax received Haldol, a powerful antipsychotic drug, instead and ended up in the ER.
Toxic ingredients. Counterfeits can be made with harmful binding agents. Experts have found everything from floor wax to carcinogenic solvents in meds bought online.
Identity theft and fraud. When you purchase drugs from an unverified site, you could be dealing with big-time crooks out to con you. "It's different than counterfeit Gucci bags," Dr. Liang says. "The potential profits are huge, so selling counterfeit drugs attracts serious criminals who may steal your credit card number or sell your personal information."