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Buying prescriptions online: a safe bet?
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Before you order
Before you input your credit card number and click on the "order" button, check out an Internet pharmacy's policies regarding privacy, refunds, customer service, security, and mailing and shipping fees:

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Privacy. Privacy is a vital issue for consumers when it comes to medical information. You need to know what a pharmacy's privacy policy is and if you can opt out of having your contact information sold to other entities. If you can't find a privacy policy, that's a major red flag.

Security. The security of your financial information is as important as the privacy of your medical information. You don't want hackers or others to gain access to your credit card and banking information. Make sure the pharmacy you are dealing with has security software so that your transactions are encrypted and can't be read by third parties while in transit or while stored in a database.

Customer service. Nothing is more frustrating for an online shopper than encountering a problem and not being able to find a real, live person to help resolve it. Make sure the Web site has a customer service telephone number, preferably toll-free, and call it before you order to make sure there are actual human beings who speak English answering the phone. In addition, the pharmacy should have registered pharmacists on hand to answer questions. Inquire about this when you call.

Refunds. There should be a clearly stated, understandable return and refund policy. You need recourse if your order doesn't arrive or if it isn't packaged correctly, is damaged during shipping, or isn't exactly what you ordered.

Fees. Carefully examine all of the fees involved before you place an order. Check out shipping fees, taxes and any other fees the pharmacy might tack on to your order. Add them up to make sure you really are saving money.

When your meds come
Your job isn't done when your medications arrive. Exercise some care before popping the first pill in your mouth by checking out:

  • The packaging: Prescription medications should be packaged securely, and those that require special handling such as refrigeration or insulation should be wrapped appropriately. Don't use the medication if the package or container is torn or ripped or looks like it has been opened and resealed.
  • Labels and warnings: Prescription medication should include the name of the drug, the dosage information, as well as any warnings associated with the drug. The General Accountability Office found that some prescriptions obtained outside the United States and Canada from Internet pharmacies lacked any type of labeling.
  • Return address: Make sure the company you ordered the medication from is the company that shipped it or is an affiliate of that company. Check out the postmark to make sure that the medication was shipped from where you ordered it and not from somewhere else.
  • The bottom line: When in doubt, don't take the medication. "People have false illusions about pharmacies," says Patton. "I have seen capsules that the FDA has intercepted, and they would frighten you to death. It's amazing that today people are willing to ingest capsules that come in a container with an information sheet that isn't even in English."'s corrections policy-- Posted: Dec. 14, 2005
More stories by Amy Buttell Crane
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