Avoid medicines scams

Lose weight from your sofa! Regrow your hair! Build muscle fast! A host of websites offer miracle cures for a range of health conditions, but medicines and treatments that are not prescribed by a qualified health professional could be a waste of money or cause you serious harm.

The Office of Fair Trading says that every year hundreds of thousands of consumers buy scam miracle cures for conditions such as weight lossbaldness and impotence.

These products are usually a waste of money and they can also be dangerous.

That’s why you should never start a new medicine, or stop a medicine that has been prescribed for you, without speaking to a qualified health professional, such as your GP or a pharmacist.

The risks of buying medicines online

Some websites offer new medicines and treatments, alongside eyecatching claims about how well they work. But they may not have been tested properly, and this means they may not work at all. Worse, they may be dangerous.

Other websites appear to sell established prescription medicines, which you may recognise or which a doctor may have prescribed for you in the past. However, these medicines may not be real. They may be fake medicines that do not contain the same ingredients. Not only will fake medicine not work like the real medicine, they may also harm you.

If you take prescription-only medicines – which only a doctor or health professional should prescribe for you – without first consulting a doctor, you risk taking medicines that are not safe or not right for you. If you have a health condition and you stop taking a medicine prescribed for you in order to take a new medicine you bought online, your health condition may get worse.

Fake (counterfeit) medicines

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is responsible for medicines regulation. It warns that medicines bought from websites cannot be guaranteed to meet set standards of safety and effectiveness.

If you are buying a product online, check the website address. According to the MHRA, up to 90% of medicines sold on websites that conceal their address are fake. Some online pharmacies bear the green cross logo of the General Pharmaceutical Council. This means that the pharmacy is registered and is associated with a physical pharmacy subject to regulation and should be safe to use.

The MHRA warns that counterfeit medicines can contain harmful ingredients such as rat poison and lead-based road paint. They are often produced by people who have no appropriate qualifications in unhygienic surroundings. Fake drugs can cause harm to patients and sometimes lead to death.

However, it is very rare for falsified medical products to be produced in the UK. Most falsified medical products discovered in the UK originated in Asia and particularly the Far East.

The most commonly falsified products found in the UK are medicines for erectile dysfunction and weight loss. However heart, cancer, anti-psychotic, anti-depressants, anti-cholesterol products have also been discovered by the MHRA in the UK.

Reporting counterfeit medicines

If you have any concerns or information that may assist the MHRA in tracking down those responsible for counterfeit medicines and devices you can email the Enforcement Group at: counterfeit@mhra.gsi.gov.uk or ring a 24-hour dedicated hotline, on 020 3080 6701.

Common medicines scams

Thousands of websites offer scam health products for sale online. Beware of websites that:

  • Promise a “new miracle cure” or “wonder breakthrough”. In reality, their products are probably not tested or proven to work.
  • Try to convince you with testimonials from previous customers. How do you know these testimonials are genuine? Even if they are genuine, anecdotal evidence such as this is not the same as the scientific evidence that genuine medicines are based on.
  • Offer “no risk” money-back guarantees. Try to get your money back, and the scammers will disappear.
  • Contain endorsements from a doctor or health professional who quotes scientific evidence. Look closer, and you’ll see that these "doctors" are not attached to any known institution or clinical practice, and the "evidence" hasn't been published in a recognised journal.

Medicines the right way

When it comes to medicines, the right approach is to speak to a qualified health professional first.

Your GP can help with a range of medicines issues, whether you think you may have a health condition and want to know if medicines can help, or you're already taking medicines and have questions about them.

Your local pharmacist can also help with medicines questions. If you’re already taking medicines, they can offer a Medicines Use Review, in which they will talk through your medicines with you. Read more about how your pharmacist can help.

Any medicines that have been prescribed or bought over the counter will come with a patient information leaflet. This contains important information about their safe and effective use. 

More medicines information

You can also find information about medicines on NHS Choices in Health A-Z and Medicines A-Z.

Page last reviewed: 21/09/2013

Next review due: 21/09/2015


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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Little Wilson said on 17 November 2014

Why is there no information on medicines approved and licenced outside of UK and available to other patients in other parts of the world? It seems to me arrogant to think that UK approval regime and budget controls promote the best medicines or are driven by patient needs. Most new medicines are available outside of UK long before they are licenced here; let alone actually approved for use by NHS.

Patients who can afford private health care have always had access to newer, better and more expensive medicine. I can source medicine cheaper from other parts of the world via the internet and in countries which have equal or better controls and standards than here.

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Augenthaler said on 05 June 2013

So we place our trust in The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). This is the same organisation that has stood by with long-standing concerns about weaknesses and gaps in the UK's regulatory system. They are the same people who allow the smokescreen of CE markings to disguise faulty and dangerous goods, such as PIP implants.
I think the view of where medicine is most safely obtained is open to debate. There is an argument to say it is safer purchased outside the EU where countries have higher standards and better controls.

The MHRA have few resources and few people. They cannot and do not effectively control safe medicines and often do nothing until a problem is reported.

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Dan P said on 03 May 2012

@SpangleStar, it takes time for scientific evidence to be released because the product must be studied correctly. If you rely on anecdotal evidence in the absence of real evidence you put yourself at risk of not only wasting your time or money, but also at risk of damaging your health or even losing your life. Medication should never be taken until real, peer-reviewed evidence has shown its claims and effects to be real.

Word of mouth, on its own, is not useful and can be extremely dangerous.

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SpangleStar said on 28 November 2010

Anecdotal evidence often supercedes scientific evidence. Unfortunately scientific study can result in delays in getting advice out to the public. Therefore word of mouth has some validity in assessing usefulness.

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