These days, it seems you can purchase everything online—including prescription drugs. With the steep rise in medication costs in the U.S. over the last two decades, many Americans find the temptation of discount prices at online pharmacies difficult to resist.

Unfortunately, according to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, about 95% of websites offering prescription drugs online are not in compliance with industry practice standards, and many operate against federal law.

What are the dangers of purchasing medication from an illegitimate site?

There are several, potentially severe risks of buying medications online. Web-based pharmacies may be selling products that are mislabeled, ineffective, expired or even laced with toxic ingredients. Additionally, such websites may gather sensitive personal data with the intent to commit identity theft or fraud. Finally, many online pharmacies falsely claim to be operating legally within the U.S., when in fact they are in another country, putting patients who purchase prescription drugs at risk of violating federal law themselves.

What are the legal risks to patients of buying online?

The DEA has strict prohibitions against buying controlled substances without a valid prescription issued by a practicing doctor. Federally controlled substances include certain types of sedatives, stimulants, anabolic steroids and narcotic pain relievers. In most circumstances, federal law also prohibits the importation of any medications that are not FDA-approved.

How can patients determine the legitimacy of an online pharmacy?

Patients should be wary of any website that offers prescription drugs without an actual, doctor-issued prescription. Individuals should check that the web address ends with the .pharmacy domain name, which indicates that the NABP has checked and approved the site. The NABP also maintains a list of Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites that lets patients confirm that the service is legitimate and operating within the law.

Many phony online pharmacies have professional-looking sites designed to make patients believe they are safe and legal. In addition to potentially severe health risks, individuals who purchase prescription drugs from an illegitimate site may be in danger of unintentionally violating federal drug laws and facing a felony drug conviction.