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Online pharmacies

What are the online pharmacies?

Since the 1990s, there have emerged so-called online pharmacies – i.e. retail pharmacies that operate partially or exclusively over the Internet and that ship orders to customers by mail. Initially, there were only a few websites selling limited types of products and targeting specific categories (such as the elderly and sportspersons). However, in just over a decade, the number of these websites has grown exponentially. Three main types of online pharmacies can be identified:

  • legal online pharmacies;
  • fake online pharmacies;
  • illegal/rogue online pharmacies.

Legal online pharmacies

Legal online pharmacies respect the law of the country in which they are established.

Fake online pharmacies

These websites purport to be selling medicines but, in fact, they are ’traps’ for potential buyers, who are victimised by identity fraud or theft (e.g. the operators of the sites steal credit card details and/or other sensitive information).

Illegal/rogue online pharmacies

Illegal/rogue online pharmacies are the main system used to sell falsified medicinal products in Western markets. These websites can be accessed with ease, for instance, via spam email or through legitimate search engines.  

Other ‘cyber spots’

Apart from online pharmacies, there are other ‘hot spots’ in cyberspace where sellers and potential buyers can meet and trade (falsified) medicines. In particular, medicinal products can be ordered through online social networks and forums. An example is provided by Operation Farmastore (Italy, 2010), which discovered counterfeits from India and Eastern Europe being sold also via Facebook and Msn.
Also in the so-called ‘Deep Web’ (i.e. the part of the Internet that cannot be reached through standard search engines) there are a number of pages dedicated to the sale of medicines, both in forums and message boards. Even if recourse to the Deep Web can currently be seen as a niche activity, given the technical abilities required, it is likely that this form of ‘hidden’ online commerce will be increasingly used in the coming years as digital natives grow in number.

“More than 94% of online pharmacies are not legitimate”

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With the financial support of the Prevention of and Fight against Crime Programme
European Commission - Directorate-General Home Affairs

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