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Massive nursing degree scheme leads to hunt for 2,800 fraudulent nurses

A critical care nurse assists a patient.
Enlarge / A critical care nurse assists a patient.

More than 2,800 people may be working as nurses under false pretenses after allegedly buying a fake diploma for between $10,000 and $15,000 from a massive Florida-based scheme recently busted by federal investigators. State and federal authorities are now working to track down the alleged fraudulent nurses, and in some cases, immediately annulling their licenses.

Last week, the Department of Justice announced charges against 25 people in five states connected to the alleged scheme. The investigation, code-named Operation Nightingale, found evidence that the 25 defendants worked to sell more than 7,600 fake diplomas, along with transcripts, between 2016 and 2021, making over $100 million in the process. The fraudulent diplomas and transcripts were allegedly issued from three accredited Florida-based nursing schools: Siena College and Sacred Heart International Institute in Broward County and Palm Beach School of Nursing in Palm Beach County.

The three schools are now closed and the 25 defendants each face up to 20 years in prison.

“Health care fraud is nothing new to South Florida, as many scammers see this as a way to earn easy, though illegal, money,” acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough, FBI Miami, said in a statement. “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.”

With a fake diploma and transcript, an unscrupulous aspiring nurse can qualify to take the national nursing board exam. And if they pass the exam, they can become licensed nurses and get a job in a health care setting. Federal authorities reported that of the 7,600 people with the alleged fake diplomas, around 37 percent—more than 2,800 people—passed the exam. Many went on to get jobs as licensed nurses.


Now, authorities are trying to track down those nurses. Court documents indicated that some of the questionable nurses were employed at Veterans Affairs hospitals in Maryland and New York, a hospital in Georgia, and a skilled nursing facility in Ohio, among other places.

Late last week, the Delaware State Board of Nursing annulled the licenses of 26 people working as nurses after obtaining allegedly fake degrees. “All of us feel this is egregious,” Pamela Zickafoose, the executive director of Delaware’s Board of Nursing, told a local ABC News affiliate.

On Monday, reporters in Georgia reported that there are 22 people working as nurses in the state with allegedly fake diplomas. The Georgia Board of Nursing sent letters to the 22 people on January 17 requesting that they voluntarily surrender their licenses within 30 days. As of January 30, none had done so.

Also on Monday, Washington state’s Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission announced it had identified 150 nursing applicants using credentials from the alleged scheme. According to KING5 in Seattle, of the 150 people, seven have had their licenses rescinded, four applicants were denied, 62 are in legal limbo, and the remaining 77 are under investigation.

In a statement, American Nurses Association President Jennifer Mensik Kennedy called the alleged scheme “extremely unsettling” and those involved “deplorable.”

“This undermines everything the nursing profession represents and stands for and is in direct opposition to the Code of Ethics for Nurses,” she continued. “Furthermore, these unlawful and unethical acts disparage the reputation of actual nurses everywhere … We support the investigation and the judicial process to ensure individuals found to have been involved in this scheme are held accountable.”

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