Avoid medicines scams

Lose weight from your sofa! Regrow your hair! Build muscle faster than ever! 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 a waste of money. 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 eye-catching 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.

Some 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. Fake medicine will not work like the real medicine, and may also be dangerous.

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.

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.

See the MHRA website for more information about the risks of buying medicines over the internet.

Would you be fooled?

The Office of Fair Trading has teamed up with Sense About Science, a charitable trust, to warn of the dangers of online miracle cures.

Their website advertises Fatfoe pads. This product “sucks out excess fat and cellulite while you sleep”, allowing users to lose up to 20 pounds a week without changing their diet.

But readers who try to order from this website will be directed to a page which explains that the products are fake and warns of the dangers of similar online scams.

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

The MHRA website has further information on the risks of buying medicines over the internet.

You can also find information about medicines in the Health A-Z and Medicines A-Z.

Last reviewed: 14/09/2011

Next review due: 14/09/2013

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Comments are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

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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