A massive, coordinated scheme for selling false and fraudulent nursing degree credentials has been brought down by a joint federal law enforcement operation, Justice Department officials said Wednesday.
As first reported by ABC News, officials said the scheme involved the trafficking of more than $100 million worth of fake nursing diplomas and transcripts over several years – fake credentials sold to help “thousands of people” “Shortcuts” to take to becoming a licensed, practicing nurse.
Officials said the fake diplomas and certificates were sold to prospective nurses by accredited schools to help candidates bypass qualification requirements needed to sit the national nursing board exam. Although they still had to take the exam, the fake credentials allowed them to skip key steps in the competency and admissions process, officials said — and once admitted, those individuals could find a job in the healthcare sector.
Overall, the conspiracy involved the distribution of over 7,600 fake nursing diplomas and certificates issued by Florida-based nursing programs, according to officials.
“This is probably one of the boldest plans I’ve ever seen. And it shocks the mind,” Omar Perez Aybar, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), told ABC News in an exclusive interview.
The sweeping enforcement action spanned five states: Florida, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Delaware, and resulted in more than two dozen criminal charges of wire fraud and wire fraud conspiracy against 25 people.
We “expect our healthcare professionals to be who they say they are. Especially when we’re talking about a nurse’s education and credentials — abbreviation isn’t a word we want to use,” said US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Markenzy Lapointe. “When we take an injured son or daughter to the emergency room of a hospital, we don’t expect – we really can’t imagine it – that the licensed practical nurse or registered nurse training our child has taken a shortcut. “
HHS-OIG, the FBI, and the Justice Department worked together on the operation, dubbed “Operation Nightingale” in honor of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.
Investigators spent weeks combing through more than 10,000 nursing school records to advance the investigation. “When we started browsing through them, we found that there weren’t any actual courses that people were taking – it was just a money mill,” Aybar said.
Nursing candidates who allegedly participated in the program would pay up to $15,000 for the fraudulent diplomas, officials said.
Defendants include “owners, operators and employees” of the schools who “prepared and sold fake nursing school diplomas and certificates to nursing candidates, knowing that the candidates would use these fake documents to sit for nursing board exams, nursing licenses.” and three eventually get nursing jobs in medical facilities — not just in Florida but elsewhere across the country,” Lapointe said. According to official information, all three schools have now been closed. Other indicted defendants include “recruiters” who are designed to solicit potential buyers.
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The alleged scheme allowed these nursing candidates to purportedly purchase the fake diplomas “to avoid hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of clinical training — countless hours to get that experience,” Lapointe said. “These people didn’t go through that. That part was skipped entirely.”
“For them, it was worth the investment or the risk,” Aybar told ABC News.
For those involved — “the owners of the nursing schools, certainly the recruiters, and no doubt the recipients of the credentials and the nursing diplomas” — Aybar said, “It was definitely all motivated by greed.”
Federal law enforcement officials underscored the program’s high stakes, saying it potentially jeopardizes the health and safety of patients — and that safe nursing standards can’t be bought — only learned.
“What’s troubling about the plan is the possibility of harming patients under the dubious care of one of these allegedly fraudulent nurses,” said Chad Yarbrough, FBI Miami Acting Special Agent.
In the indictment, federal law enforcement officials alleged that the defendants — some in leadership positions at nursing schools — “recruited and recruited individuals seeking a nursing license to obtain employment as Registered Nurses (RN) or Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurses (LPN). VN),” then arranged with co-conspirators to “produce and distribute false and fraudulent diplomas and certificates” to falsely represent that the prospective nurses had attended the program and completed the necessary courses to obtain a diploma, although ” in reality, the prospective nurses had never completed the necessary courses and clinics.”
Aybar said one of the ways officials were alerted to the alleged system was when the Florida state audit process discovered poor pass rates at three nursing schools.
Alleged participants in the program have backdated the diplomas and certificates they sell to make them appear legitimate, authorities said. Applicants would use these fake diplomas, credentials and additional records to gain licensing in different states — then applicants could use these fraudulent documents to get nursing jobs “with ignorant healthcare providers across the country,” officials said.
Officials said they “did not learn or uncover any evidence of patient harm coming from those individuals who may be providing services to patients” – but it was the potential for that harm to patients that was precisely the concern.
Aybar said that’s why, since the investigation began, authorities have been working with state regulatory agencies to share as much information as possible and as quickly as possible so that respective agencies can “assess what actions to take to prevent this.” discourage people from providing care.”
Federal law enforcement action comes at a crucial time in the healthcare industry, where an existing nurse shortage, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has left many nurses thinned and burned out.
“I am confident that all of these individuals will have some level of responsibility,” Aybar said.
Defendants in the alleged scheme face a maximum statutory sentence of 20 years in prison if convicted on charges of fraud and conspiracy to wire fraud, the DOJ said.
Aybar pointed to the pledge of ethics and principle nurses make, called the “Nightingale Pledge”.
“They promise that they will refrain from any harmful action. They will do everything in their power to promote and honor the profession. These people clearly didn’t do that,” he said.
“We understand that this behavior does not reflect the hard work and dedication of nurses to make this profession honorable and thank you for that,” Aybar added. “I encourage those of you — if you’re in an environment and happen to have someone who might not be up to the standards you understand, maybe if you see something say something.”
Officials said it’s up to state licensing agencies at this point to take action against those individuals under their jurisdiction — some of whom “somewhere in the United States, maybe currently,” were practicing nursing, Lapointe said.
“We know who they are,” Lapointe said.
“Not only is this a public safety issue, but it also tarnishes the reputation of nurses who actually did the hard clinical and academic work required to get licenses and jobs,” Lapointe said. “And of course it undermines the centuries-old trust we’ve built in our nation’s nurses.”
ABC News’ Luke Barr contributed to this report.
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