Many people try to cut down on their healthcare costs by purchasing medications from online pharmacies. While these sites do tend to be much cheaper than buying from traditional pharmacies in the United States, there are a lot of risks.

Most sites that sell prescriptions aren’t legitimate, but they may fraudulently label their drugs as FDA-approved. Ones that sell medicines for much cheaper than traditional pharmacies usually aren’t operating in the U.S., and it’s illegal to order medicines from outside the country. According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, only 4 percent of online drug outlets follow U.S. laws and standards.

Some of the risks of buying medicines online include:

Ineffective Treatment

Medicines sold online are often poor quality, which can prevent you from properly treating your health issue. The drugs may have too much or too little of an active ingredient, or they may be too old and no longer effective. They also may be stored or shipped improperly, which could make them less effective. If you buy a medicine from a questionable online pharmacy, you can’t know for sure whether the drug will even treat you at all. In the case of very serious health conditions, this could cost you your life.

Some online pharmacies send their customers the wrong drug entirely. The FDA once purchased drugs online that were advertised as Tamiflu, which has the active ingredient oseltamivir. They received unlabeled white tablets, and upon testing these tablets, the FDA officials discovered that they only contained talc and acetaminophen, not oseltamivir.

Dangerous Contents

Receiving ineffective medicine isn’t the biggest risk with purchasing drugs online. Medicine from online pharmacies may contain toxic chemicals or dangerous drugs that could cause you serious harm. Some medicines purchased online have been found to contain toxic paint, rat poison, and heavy metals.

The FDA reported that some people who ordered anti-anxiety drugs online, including Ambien and Xanax, received a version of the anti-psychotic drug Haldol instead. The Haldol caused muscle spasms, difficulty breathing, and other serious symptoms, and the people who mistakenly took the drug needed emergency medical treatment.

Personal Information Stolen

Another big risk is having your information exposed or stolen when you use an online pharmacy. This could cause something harmless yet irritating like email spam, or it could cause computer viruses and other harmful activity. Fraudulent online pharmacies may also steal your credit card or other financial information.

Some online pharmacies are legitimate, but you have to check sites very carefully to make sure. If you do choose to get prescriptions from an online pharmacy, the site must be from the United States. It also must be licensed by the Board of Pharmacy in the state it operates in. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy website has a list of the official boards for each state.

Safe and legitimate sites will always require a prescription to receive prescription medications. If the site advertises drugs with no prescription, it is operating illegally and it is likely a scam. A trustworthy site should also have a licensed pharmacist available to answer your questions.