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Person in blur holds up smartphone, showing web shop with medicines on sale
Medicines are increasingly ordered on the web Image: Andrey Popov / Shutterstock

Bitter pills - risks with online medicines

Rather, people have shifted their buying behaviour even more towards the internet in the pandemic. But especially with medicines and health products, caution is advised. Not all traders comply with the regulations that apply in Austria and counterfeits are unfortunately good business. Every year, customs take large quantities of counterfeit or illegal medicines out of circulation in random samples. Driven by people's uncertainty due to the Corona wave, 58% more illegal medicines were seized in the previous year. In this article, we have compiled information on how to recognise a reputable online pharmacy, which products may be sold and which legal provisions must be observed. Support was provided by our cooperation partners, the Federal Office for Safety in Health Care (BASG), the Austrian Chamber of Pharmacists and the customs authorities.

Online pharmacies in demand

As a general rule, medicines may only be dispensed to customers by pharmacies and should therefore only ever be obtained there. In recent months, some (smaller) pharmacies have set up a web shop in addition to their on-site pharmacy in order to also supply their customers by mail order. In Austria, however, only the ordering and dispatch of over-the-counter medicines is allowed. In addition to the web shops of the public pharmacies, there are also some internationally operating groups that are more warehouse than pharmacy and operate exclusively online shops.

Pictogram about "Shopping online"

Shopping online

A look behind the dropshipping storefront

They deliver centrally from an EU country and orders are placed via a website adapted for the respective country. Buying from pharmacies in third countries, such as the USA or China, is not permitted. So-called "dropshippers" also fall into this category. They mainly buy from manufacturers in third countries - mostly in the Far East - at factory prices, and sell the medicines via a website that is designed as if it came from a domestic supplier in order to appear more credible. In these cases, the risk of counterfeit products is all the greater and there is usually no customer service, as dropshippers do not even have a warehouse and often do not know exactly what their own goods are.

Pictogram about "Dropshipping"

Dropshipping has drawbacks

Buyer also liable to prosecution

Official EU-wide logo of mail order pharmacies authorised in Austria
Austrian version of the EU-wide logo of authorised mail order pharmacies Image: BASG

Pharmacies operating in the EU area must comply with national quality specifications and regulations regarding prescription requirements. Approved online traders (in Austria exclusively pharmacies) are recognisable by an EU-wide safety logo. A white cross backed by green horizontal stripes, supplemented by the national flag, is supposed to signal that all requirements are met. So much for the theory. Unfortunately, practical tests by consumer associations have shown that, despite this, unauthorised medicines continue to enter Austria.

Ultimately, this also makes the purchaser himself liable to prosecution. Therefore, you can be on the safe side if you purchase medicines exclusively from public pharmacies or order over-the-counter medicines from certified web shops of Austrian pharmacies.

Recognise a fake shop

The most problems, however, are with fake shops, which often present themselves as "internet pharmacies" in a reputable guise. Either the goods are not delivered at all and they just cash in, or the goods are counterfeited and mixed with problematic active ingredients and substances. These fakes often look deceptively real. There are some indications how you can recognise that this is a fake shop or a brand counterfeiter. For example, the shop only has a limited range, which is concentrated on product groups such as potency, slimming and hair growth products. But particularly expensive painkillers or sleeping pills, available domestically only with a prescription, are also suspicious. An advertised "100% guarantee of efficacy", a dedicated note "available without prescription" or texts in poor German (or English) are further clear indications.

Pictogram about "Fake online pharmacy"

Fake online pharmacy

Check testimonials

Before placing an order, check the imprint and the payment methods of the online shop. Testimonials and warnings on consumer sites or review portals (such as Trustpilot) also provide important information about the provider. With just a few clicks, you can save yourself a lot of trouble. The imprint should contain information about the online shop, the postal address, the e-mail address and a contact for queries. A good web shop offers several payment methods, ideally also "purchase on account", a particularly secure payment method. If a shop only delivers against prepayment, this is a pretty clear indication of a fake shop. We recommend that - if purchase on account is not possible - you prefer to pay by credit card or PayPal. This way you have a recourse in case of fraud.

Pictogram about "See customer reviews"

See customer reviews

Buy only if these conditions are met:

  • Product is licensed in Austria and available without prescription.
  • Pharmacy is located in an EU/EEA member state.
  • European safety logo is on the website and a click on it leads to the official entry of the national supervisory authority.
  • Your purchase is for your own use, maximum 3 packs per product.
  • A list of registered and audited Austrian mail order pharmacies can be found under this link

Beware of providers without a licence

"This "medicine" may endanger your health!" - This notice would be appropriate on the packaging of many products purchased in good faith from an "internet pharmacy". Customs seized around 350,000 counterfeit and other illegal medicines in the previous year, and the number is rising sharply. The pharmacy advertises itself as an online pharmacy in order to give the sales a respectable However, the Medicines Act clearly states that only pharmacies based in Austria or the rest of the European Economic Area (EEA) may sell medicines ("medicinal products") via the Internet.

Pictogram about "Beware of scams"

Beware of scams

Deceptive similarity

But not only the trade in counterfeits is a problem. The Chamber of Pharmacists warns in particular about questionable production conditions and ingredients in medicines that are not registered and authorised in Austria. Proper transport and professional storage are also not ensured. Counterfeits sometimes appear deceptively genuine and cannot be immediately distinguished visually from the originals. Products are considered counterfeit if they are copied from an original brand-name medicine and appear under the same or similar name and in the same or similar packaging. One speaks of illegal medicines if the goods are produced and sold outside the legal regulations.

Pictogram about "Hazardous ingredients"

Hazardous ingredients

At own risk

In both cases, the buyers run a high health risk when they take or use these products due to a lack of quality control. Either the promised active ingredient is not contained at all or in the wrong dosage. For example, antibiotics that are dosed too weakly can lead to a higher resistance of bacteria in the long run. In the worst case, unknown ingredients have been used to which you may be allergic. In the absence of medical advice on dosage, use and interactions, you are thus literally "taking the medicine at your own risk". On the other hand, when buying medicines from a local pharmacy or a registered mail-order pharmacy, you can usually be sure that you will not receive any counterfeits due to the closely controlled supply chain.

Pictogram about "Better safe than sorry"

Better safe than sorry

Recognise counterfeits

Do not take the product under any circumstances if you notice these suspicions:

  • The package insert or the cardboard packaging is missing, or the packaging looks different than usual. A medicine approved in Austria would never be able to pass quality controls without a package insert.
  • The tablet or powder has an unusual colour, tastes different or has a different effect. At the latest then it is high time to visit a doctor or a pharmacy for clarification.
  • If in doubt, you can look up the product online in the register of medicinal products. The Federal Office for Safety in Health Care (BASG) lists all medicinal products authorised in Austria there. You can also mail your suspicion of a counterfeit to the BASG.
  • Consumer websites as well as the websites of the BASG and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) also provide information on counterfeits currently in circulation.

Product check on medicines

Tablets and instruction leaflet, above magnifying glass
Image: PhotoSGH / Shutterstock

Medicines can contain powerful active ingredients. Therefore, there is a prescription requirement for many products. Food supplements are available without a prescription, they are considered a kind of supplementary "food". We asked the Federal Office for Safety in Health Care (BASG) how to recognise the differences and give them here:

Are medicines and pharmaceuticals the same thing?

In principle, yes, but the word "medicine" does not even appear in the Austrian legal system. Instead Austrian law (Arzneimittelgesetz) uses the term "medicinal product". The common term "medicine" is used colloquially; what is meant is "medicinal product" or pharmaceutical in the legal sense. In simple terms, pharmaceuticals are substances intended for use in or on the body with the aim of curing, alleviating or preventing diseases. 

What distinguishes medicinal products from food supplements?

In order for something to be sold as a medicinal product, an official authorisation is required. This is granted to the applicant (usually a pharmaceutical company) if it is proven on the basis of scientific data that the production is of high quality and that safety and efficacy are given. If, on the basis of the studies and clinical trials submitted, the authority comes to the conclusion that the benefits of the medicinal product clearly outweigh the possible risks, a marketing authorisation is granted.

In contrast, food supplements do not require a marketing authorisation and there is no regulatory review. According to the law, food supplements are considered a type of food that is only intended to supplement the normal diet. Due to the similar packaging, medicinal products and food supplements may well be confused at first glance. It is worth taking a closer look at the packaging here, because only medicinal products have the official marketing authorisation number printed on them.

What types of medicinal products are there?

In Austria there are currently about 14,000 officially authorised medicinal products. In the case of medicinal products, a distinction can be made between the active substance (i.e. the substance that is to exert the intended therapeutic effect) and the excipients that support the active substance. Excipients such as corn starch, lactose or stabilisers may be necessary, for example, to form a tablet or to keep the active substance stable. Medicines can be marketed in a wide variety of forms (as tablets, capsules, powders, juices, injectable solutions, spray ampoules, metered dose inhalers, etc.).

What are generics?

In simple terms, generics are a "subcategory" of medicinal products. They are so-called "copy drugs" that can be produced quickly and cheaply. If patent rights run out on the original medicines, they can be "copied", but they are just as good and strictly tested. This is confirmed by the official approval, which makes no distinctions here in terms of quality, efficacy and safety.

When customs strikes

If you buy banned medicines on the internet, you can get into a lot of trouble. Surprising import fees, steep return costs, even an administrative fine are possible. The sale of illegal medicines is big business internationally. The pandemic year 2020 unfortunately marks a peak when it comes to seizures of counterfeit medicines. In about 3,420 seizures, 350,000 counterfeit and other illegal medicines were seized, the second highest amount ever seized by customs in Austria. This was certainly also due to the fact that dubious promises of salvation were able to expand their assortment to include the "Corona" line in addition to well-known "classics" such as potency, diet and nutritional supplements.

Pictogram about "Seized by customs"

Seized by customs

Criminal machinations

Behind this illegal business is above all organised crime, which has no regard for the health or financial damage to the defrauded customers or the consequential costs to society. The pharmaceutical industry, which invests a lot of money in research and the development of new drugs, is also harmed. The health system is also burdened. Those who order supposedly cheaper or promising medicines abroad have no certainty that the composition of the active ingredients meets European standards. Time and again, dangerous ingredients are also found in product tests. In order to circumvent import restrictions, smuggling gangs organise transport into the EU area, which always find new smuggling routes when customs are successful.

Pictogram about "Recognise fake webshops"

Recognise fake webshops

Top seller potency drugs

If one looks at the list of confiscated drugs in detail, one could come to the conclusion that health care in Austria is in a very bad state. As already mentioned, "potency enhancers" and "fertility-enhancing products" of all kinds are at the top of the list. But also antidepressants, sleeping pills and tranquillisers as well as medicines against pain are in great demand. An astonishingly high share of the most popular smuggled medicines, 10 percent, are supplements that strengthen joints and protect bones. This is astonishing above all because these products - with or without a prescription - are easily available in a wide range of products. In general, one wonders about the trust that is placed in sometimes adventurous formulations instead of relying on the strict approval procedure in this country and a consultation with a doctor.

Pictogram about "The real ingredients?"

The real ingredients?

Generic drugs are also in demand

Since 2018, internet orders have increasingly shifted to "generics", especially for sexual enhancers. Counterfeiters and buyers are increasingly switching to products that do not fall under product piracy. This is mainly due to the fact that the patent protection of tadalafil, an active ingredient used against erectile dysfunction, expired in November 2017. However, the original active ingredient was very quickly replaced by generics and thus the buoyant trade in this drug continued under a different name.

But: Even without patent protection, such medicines are still illegal medicines. According to the law, all medicinal products are considered illegal by the customs authorities if, contrary to the prohibition under the Medicinal Products Importation Act 2010, they are ordered by private individuals at a distance (e.g. via the internet) and then imported. However, commercial smuggling gangs are also active in this business, bringing the illegal products into the country on a commercial basis and selling them here. Of course, this is not allowed either.

Return at own expense

What are the legal consequences if a parcel is intercepted by customs as suspicious and subsequently confiscated? In the lesser case, the goods are either returned at the customer's expense or destroyed. Depending on the quantity imported, administrative fines of up to 3,600 euros can be imposed, and up to 7,260 euros in the case of a repeat offence. In the case of shipments of smaller quantities to private individuals, an administrative penalty is usually waived if the medicines are returned. Customs mainly targets professional smugglers who import large quantities.

Pictogram about "Delivery not possible"

Delivery not possible

Expensive bargains

Order a pack of ginseng capsules "cheaper" from an Asian supplier? Thanks to a generous exemption limit for import duties for goods worth less than 22 euros, this was previously possible without further costs. The EU has now put a stop to this tax advantage by requiring import VAT to be paid even for "bargain purchases" from third countries. The new regulation, which is intended to ensure more tax justice, has been in effect since 1 July 2021 and has already caused some excitement among surprised consumers. From now on, import VAT will be due for shipments from third countries (e.g. USA, Great Britain, China) if the sender has not already charged this amount directly when placing the order. There was no change in the customs limit, which remains at a value of 150 euros.

Pixtogram about "High incidental costs"

High incidental costs

Caution, cost trap!

The costs of importation are initially interpreted by the post office or courier service, which charge a service fee for their service (payment of duties and declaration of the consignment at customs).

If there is any uncertainty about the contents of the consignment or the value of the goods, processing and storage charges of 24 euros may be incurred in addition to the "import tariff" (at the post office, for example, between 5 and 36 euros depending on the value of the goods and the product). So, so that the supposed bargain does not turn into a cost trap, pay attention not only to the price, but also enquire carefully about any additional costs (customs, tax, service fee, storage costs for unclear imports, return fees).

Short and sweet: What you should know before placing your first order

  • Only over-the-counter medicines authorised in Austria may be purchased online, and only from an official online pharmacy from the EEA/EU area.  Other medicines may not be ordered by private individuals.
  • Maximum of 3 packages: The quantity ordered per product must not exceed the usual personal requirement. This regulation also applies to homeopathic and herbal remedies and to certain food supplements, provided they contain active pharmaceutical ingredients.
  • Play it safe: You can recognise a reputable shop pharmacy by the safety logo on the website (flag symbol and link to the pharmacy). These references are missing? Then you may have landed on the website of a fake shop and should stop the ordering process immediately. 
  • Only over-the-counter medicines authorised in Austria may be purchased online, and only from an official online pharmacy from the EEA/EU area. Other medicines may not be ordered by private individuals.
  • Maximum of 3 packages: The quantity ordered per product must not exceed the usual personal requirement. This regulation also applies to homeopathic and herbal remedies and to certain food supplements, provided they contain active pharmaceutical ingredients.
  • Play it safe: You can recognise a reputable shop pharmacy by the safety logo on the website (flag symbol and link to the pharmacy). These references are missing? Then you may have landed on the website of a fake shop and should stop the ordering process immediately. 


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