Counterfeit OTC Products: Getting to Know the Real from the Fake

Counterfeit OTC Products: Getting to Know the Real from the Fake

Are you thinking about buying an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine or dietary supplement from an online store? Don't be so quick to click "purchase." Before you hit that button, take a closer look at who you are buying from. Even when shopping on well-known eCommerce websites, you may find different sellers offering the same product on the same results page. Some of these products may not even ship directly from the manufacturer or the website you're buying from. As a result, there has been arise in diverted and counterfeit goods on these online marketplaces, including products manufactured or labeled for areas outside of the United States and (even worse) ones that are fake, unsafe, or mislabeled.

In this article, we will share insights into this ever-changing landscape of counterfeit and resold OTC products and how you can navigate it with confidence so that you can keep yourself and your family safe when choosing and using these products.

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Counterfeit OTC Products: Getting to Know the Real from the Fake

Counterfeit OTC Products: Getting to Know the Real from the Fake

Counterfeit OTC Products: Getting to Know the Real from the Fake

Content medically reviewed by
Trager Hintze, PharmD
Author & Expert Contributors
written by
Author & Expert Contributors
written by
Content medically reviewed by
Trager Hintze, PharmD
Author & Expert Contributors
written by
written by

Are you thinking about buying an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine or dietary supplement from an online store? Don't be so quick to click "purchase." Before you hit that button, take a closer look at who you are buying from. Even when shopping on well-known eCommerce websites, you may find different sellers offering the same product on the same results page. Some of these products may not even ship directly from the manufacturer or the website you're buying from. As a result, there has been arise in diverted and counterfeit goods on these online marketplaces, including products manufactured or labeled for areas outside of the United States and (even worse) ones that are fake, unsafe, or mislabeled.

In this article, we will share insights into this ever-changing landscape of counterfeit and resold OTC products and how you can navigate it with confidence so that you can keep yourself and your family safe when choosing and using these products.

What Are Counterfeit OTC Products?

It's important to know that honest consumer health companies take many steps to ensure that the products they sell are of the highest quality. This includes making their products in regulated factories that follow good manufacturing practices and strict safety standards. Their facilities are routinely inspected by health authorities like the FDA to ensure products meet all requirements. When you buy your medicines from these companies and their authorized distributors, you can feel confident knowing they are genuine, made from high-quality ingredients, and meet well-established OTC medicine standards.  

Counterfeit medicines, on the other hand, are often made by untrustworthy manufacturers in spaces that do not follow good manufacturing practices or safety standards and have no quality control. They may also have too much or too little of the active ingredient - or even none at all. They may also contain other ingredients you aren't aware of because they do not mention them on the label.

Additionally, counterfeit OTC products could:

  • contain the wrong type of medicine
  • be made from poorer-quality ingredients
  • contain the wrong dose of medicine
  • be repackaged expired medicine 
  • contain harmful or toxic substances
  • be made using child labor or forced labor

Taking these counterfeit medicines may not benefit you and, even worse, could end up hurting you.

How Do I Know Who I Am Buying From?

When you purchase products online, the options are endless. One option is buying directly from a manufacturer’s website ([BRAND].com), where products are sold and shipped directly to you from the manufacturer.

Alternatively, you might decide to purchase your products from an online retailer that sells multiple brands and products (e.g. Amazon, Walmart, Costco, or a pharmacy retailer). In such cases, the products maybe stored and shipped in various ways:

  • If it shows the name of the site in the “sold and shipped” information (Amazon, Walmart, Costco, etc.) then the product is coming through their facilities.
  • If you see the manufacturer’s name listed, the product is either coming directly from the manufacturer or an authorized distributor.
  • If it shows the name of the site in the “shipped by” information (Amazon, Walmart, Costco, etc.), but is “sold by” another name other than the manufacturer or an authorized distributor, it is likely a third-party seller.
  • If you see another name in the “sold and shipped” information that is not the e-commerce platform nor the manufacturer/authorized distributor of the product, it is likely a third-party seller.

Safe Online Shopping of OTC Medicines: How to Avoid and Spot Counterfeit Products

Even though you're careful about only ordering from websites you trust, you may still unknowingly buy products from a deceptive third-party seller. While there are thousands of legitimate third-party sellers online, some aim to take advantage of authentic product listings to trick you into buying fake products or counterfeits. A good rule of thumb is to always check the “sold and shipped by” information before placing an item in your cart.  

Before you purchase a product, look out for these warning signs to be able to tell the difference between what is real and what is not:   

  • Deals that are too good to be true. Sellers of fake products try to attract you by offering much lower prices than businesses selling genuine medicines. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is! These sellers may even appear at the top of your search results.  
  • Photos that do not match the product. If an image is low-quality or shows a product that is different from the one being advertised on the listing, there is a good chance that it is fake. Some counterfeit sellers blur or obscure the name brand of the product on the photo to evade counterfeit listing detection methods.
  • Listing wording that does not match the photo. Some sellers avoid the use of brand names in their listings while showing an image of the branded product in their photos. This is another tactic to evade counterfeit listing detection methods.
  • Fake-sounding reviews. Watch out for non-specific reviews that don't seem to be about the product listed. If the comments are confusing, look like they have all been written by the same person, or don’t sound authentic (AI-generated), that is a major red flag.  
  • No address or phone number listings. If the seller doesn't have a physical address or telephone number in the U.S., this is a red flag that this could be a fake business.  
  • Poor seller policies. If the seller has no return and/or refund policy, that seems fishy. That said, bear in mind that most sellers will not allow returns on over-the-counter medications.  You should also avoid sellers without policies to safeguard your financial information and other personal data.  
  • "I got a bad feeling about this." If you can't pinpoint the reason but get that feeling in your gut that the seller or product isn't right, avoid it. Trusting your instinct and moving on to another seller is a safe decision.  

To avoid counterfeit products, select items that are shipping from and sold by 1) the e-commerce platform directly or 2) from the manufacturer’s officially branded storefront. As an extra step, you should always:

  • check the third-party seller’s address and reviews to be certain about who you are buying from before placing your order.  
  • check a brand’s website for information on their authorized sellers.  
  • use an online delivery app or place a “buy online and pick up in-store” order from a trusted local retailer.

Sometimes you may receive a product that you thought was coming from a trusted and safe source, but something looks off to you. Here are some red flags to be aware of once your product has arrived:

  • Packaging – Is the packaging torn or did it arrive without an outer product box? Be skeptical if the product comes without any additional packaging (i.e., the bottle is by itself without the official box with the Drug Facts or Supplement Facts Label) or if the entire package looks different in quality and professionalism from what you’re used to receiving from a trusted brand. Does the product have tamper-evident packaging and is it intact?
  • Typos – Are there any misspellings anywhere on the package or on the bottle itself? This would be a strong indication of a counterfeit product from a bogus manufacturer.  
  • Bogus Instructions: Avoid buying medicines with instructions in a foreign language or without a printed expiration date on the listing. These are warning signs that the medicine could be phony.
  • Labeling –  Is there a batch/lot number present and a manufacturing or expiration date? If not, this is a big red flag.
  • Product – Carefully inspect the medicine (pill/liquid) or supplement. Does it look like the photos on the webpage? Be cautious of any color, odor, or quality changes, too.  

If you receive a product that you suspect may be counterfeit, you should NOT use it. Instead, return it and report it to STOPFakes.gov, which is where you can submit a complaint about an online vendor selling fake or resold products. You can also report the listing to the manufacturer, who may want your help to collect a sample of the product for any investigation they might undertake. You can go to the website of the manufacturer, find the “contact us” section of the site, and reach out to their call center if you have any concerns about the product. Additionally, you may wish to report the listing to the eCommerce platform itself, as they may want to remove the listing or the seller from their platform; be prepared to share the order number and third-party seller name from your order history.

Final Thoughts: Becoming A Smarter Shopper

When you're not feeling well, getting the medicines that can help sometimes feels like a struggle – especially as you try to balance your decision-making with aches and pains getting in the way. The convenience of getting the medicines you need from an online store and having them delivered directly to you can be a real lifesaver. But to feel better, be aware and only shop from reliable sites and sellers to avoid misleading third-party scams that could do more harm than good.   

Counterfeit medicines do exist in the U.S. and are becoming more of a problem. Your first line of defense is a familiar one: YOU. Learn to identify what is fake vs what is real, buy only from dependable pharmacies & retailers, and do not chase deals from unfamiliar sellers. Always check the online product listing to see exactly who is selling it and where it is being shipped from (retailer vs. manufacturer vs. 3rd party seller).

Inspect your products closely when they arrive at your doorstep to make sure they are not damaged or disturbed in any way. If your OTC item looks off in packaging or labeling, or if the product itself does not look right, return it and report it. Trust your gut! By being an informed shopper, you will be able to find the trustworthy products you need to help you feel your best.

Safe Use Tips & Takeaways

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