Law enforcement officials in Miami, FL announced charges against 25 individuals today for their alleged participation in a wire fraud scheme that sent thousands of fraudulent nursing diplomas to aspiring providers all over the country.
Prosecutors said the defendants sold fake nursing degrees and transcripts obtained from accredited nursing schools in South Florida that are now closed. The individuals who purchased the bogus degrees were seeking licenses and jobs as registered nurses and licensed practical/vocational nurses, according to police. The fake degrees allowed them to sit for the national nursing board exam under false pretenses.
“The overall scheme involved the distribution of more than 7,600 fake nursing diplomas issued by three South Florida-based nursing schools: Siena College in Broward County, Palm Beach School of Nursing in Palm Beach County, Fla., and Sacred Heart International Institute in Broward County. These schools are now closed,” read the official charges.
Police say the purchasers were attempting to use the fake degrees as a shortcut. Individuals paid $10,000 or more for the phony diplomas.
“Not only is this a public safety concern, it also tarnishes the reputation of nurses who actually complete the demanding clinical and course work required to obtain their professional licenses and employment,” said Markenzy Lapointe, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He added that the scheme threatens to “erode public trust in our healthcare system.”
The investigation spanned five states, including Florida, New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Delaware. Some of the defendants include those in leadership positions in nursing schools, according to officials. All the defendants face up to 20 years in prison.
Omar Perez Aybar, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), called it “one of the most brazen schemes” he’d ever seen. The authorities are warning the public that there are some 7,600 aspiring nurses out there with fake degrees.
“Healthcare fraud is nothing new to South Florida, as many scammers see this as a way to earn easy, though illegal, money,” said acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough of FBI Miami. “What is disturbing about this investigation is that there are over 7,600 people around the country with fraudulent nursing credentials who are potentially in critical health care roles treating patients. Were it not for the diligence and hard work of the investigators on this case, the extent of this fraud may not have been discovered.”
Investigators went through some 100,000 records from nursing schools to flag those suspected of fraud. “As we started to poke through them, we noticed there were no real courses the individuals took — it was simply a cash mill,” Aybar said.
Florida is facing a dire nursing shortage with nursing schools struggling to produce enough trained providers to keep up with demand. The circulation of fraudulent diplomas could lead to unqualified professionals administering care.
“The demand for nurses is high and continues to grow,” Lapointe added. “It is a shame that certain people and institutions connected to the nursing profession try to circumvent its educational requirements. This office and its law enforcement partners are committed to prosecuting this and similar fraud schemes that endanger the public.”
But the investigation is far from over. Officials said they may bring charges against those who purchased the fake degrees as well.
“I envision that there’s going to be a number of other actions that we’ll be able to take,” Aybar said. “I’m confident that there will be a level of accountability that all of these individuals will face.”