Recently, one of the most well-known erectile dysfunction treatments became more widely available in UK pharmacies, with the introduction of Viagra Connect.

The reclassified 50mg version of the drug to a pharmacy medicine (P-Line) means that patients no longer require a prescription from a doctor to get it.

But even though the treatment is now more accessible through local and high street pharmacies, many men will still seek treatment from online providers; either because they feel more comfortable taking this route or because it’s more convenient for them.

Getting treatment online has, on the whole, arguably become safer in recent years; with many big brand, reputable pharmacies now offering their services through an online platform.

But unregulated or illicit pharmacy sites - and there are still many - remain a problem. Many of these may offer to provide prescription or pharmacy medicines on a ‘no questions asked’ basis, and the treatments they’re selling may often not be genuine.

Safety is obviously crucial when getting treatment online. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between a pharmacy operating within the law, and adhering to standards set by official regulatory bodies; and those which very likely don’t.

Fortunately, there are several ways to help identify whether or not an online pharmacy is trading legitimately.

To help illustrate this, we’ve put together some annotated screenshots to highlight some of the more common tactics they might use:

  • Three of the screenshots were taken from actual websites we managed to find on Google (we’ve amended these slightly, removing their contact details and altering their branding, but everything else has been left the same);
  • and the other three screenshots were created for the purpose of this article to help further highlight the tactics being employed.

Treated.com Clinical Lead, Dr Daniel Atkinson, has also provided some helpful guidance on avoiding unregulated sites.

What are some of the common scams?

  • Fake products

When searching online for erectile dysfunction medication, less reputable sites may offer what they claim are genuine variations of existing products. However in many cases, these variations are not legally available.

‘Viagra is available as a tablet only.’ explains Dr Atkinson. ‘Pfizer do not produce it as a ‘jelly’ or in different flavours, and Sildenafil, the generic version, is not available in these forms either. Nipatra, a chewable tablet version of sildenafil, is the only other version of the drug which has been produced to date, and been licensed in the UK.’

Viagra is only available in three different dosage strengths: 25 mg, 50 mg and 100 mg.

‘Super’ or ‘extra strength’ Viagra (often marketed as a 200mg dose) does not legally exist, so any website claiming to provide these doses should be avoided.

Another tactic employed by some websites is to sell a drug that has been made for sale in a different market, such as Kamagra.

As Dr Atkinson explains, ‘if you’re in the UK, you shouldn’t buy treatment from any site offering to sell Kamagra. Strictly speaking this is a generic medicine and is available legally in some countries, but it’s not a licensed treatment in the UK. It’s also a drug which is often counterfeited; so it’s generally a good idea to avoid any service which offers to ship it to you.’

  • Unrealistic prices

Viagra is a branded product and is not typically the cheapest option for those seeking erectile dysfunction treatment (the generic, Sildenafil, is often cheaper).

However, there are websites that will use the lure of a cheap deal on a branded medicine to get patients to part with their card details.

As Dr Atkinson elaborates, ‘Viagra isn’t a cheap drug, so it’s likely that any site offering the branded version at a few pennies per tablet is either offering it at a substantial loss, or not offering what they claim.’

‘The generic version, Sildenafil, is cheaper, and some legitimate pharmacies do offer it at a price which works out at less than £1 per tablet. However, these sites should state that the version they’re offering is the generic and not the branded version (and even then, it’s not likely that they’ll be able to offer the generic version for as little as 10p per tablet).’

  • Pushy marketing techniques

In the UK it is illegal to offer promotions on the sale of prescription-only medication. Online pharmacies are only allowed to promote the service they provide, as opposed to the sale of the actual drugs.

So any pharmacy website that uses dramatic price promotions or free sample schemes should be given a wide berth.

As Dr Atkinson explains: ‘Viagra is a prescription medicine which needs to be issued by a pharmacist or a doctor. It can’t be given away at a heavily discounted price or on a free trial. So it’s advisable to avoid sites using pushy selling techniques, such as limited time offer or ‘free pills with every order’.’

  • Images of drugs on the homepage

The image of a Viagra pill is instantly recognisable, and the blue diamond tablet is a strong unique selling point.

However, advertising restrictions in the UK prevent regulated pharmacies from using images of treatments on their homepage.

So, because fraudulent websites do not follow the rules, they may include images of the pill on their homepage.

‘According to advertising regulations in the UK, pharmacy websites are not permitted to display images of specific medicines on their homepage.’ Dr Atkinson explains. ‘So any site with pictures of Viagra strewn all over their homepage are obviously non-compliant, and should be avoided.’

  • Poor content

Online pharmacies should present themselves in a professional manner. Their web content should be informative and, ideally, not contain any spelling mistakes. So any pharmacy site which is riddled with errors or spelling mistakes is usually a dead giveaway.

  • Hacked websites

If you find a Google result for Viagra from a site which doesn’t appear to be pharmacy, treat it with suspicion.

‘One tactic illicit sellers often use is to hack sites and redirect users to their own website.’ Dr Atkinson explains.

Illicit sites might do this because the domain they’ve hacked may have a higher authority value on Google than their own site, and appear more prominently in search results.

‘So be wary of any search results you see where the business name in the url has nothing to do with pharmacies or prescription medicines.’

  • ‘Canadian’ pharmacies

‘For people inside the UK, it’s important to be wary of sites prominently branding themselves as ‘Canadian pharmacies’.’ Dr Atkinson explains.

‘Obviously the majority of pharmacies actually trading in Canada are legitimate; but illicit sites not actually based in Canada might sometimes adopt this branding as a way of explaining how they can offer branded drugs at such a cheap price.’

‘If you live in the UK and want to get your treatment online, make sure you use a site registered with UK regulators, such as the CQC, GPhC and MHRA.’

Pharmacies registered with these bodies will usually carry their logo, and clicking on this will take the user to the pharmacy’s entry in the regulator’s register.

  • Reviews not through an independent party

More reputable pharmacy sites displaying reviews of their service will usually do so through an independent platform, such as Trustpilot. You should be able to use a clickable link and read the reviews on the review site itself.

So look out for websites where all the reviews were all left on the same day, or if the most recent review was from several years ago.