The Florida Fake Degree Scandal: How It Happened, Impact on Nurses, and What We Learned

In 2005, a massive fraud scheme was uncovered involving fake diplomas and degrees from three Florida-based diploma mills. Over a decade later, this scandal still serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of academic fraud. And more recently, a fake nursing degree scandal has further highlighted the risks.

In January, it was discovered that some nursing schools in Florida were giving out fake diplomas. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Department of Justice investigated and found out that people were selling fake nursing diplomas and transcripts.

Around 7,600 fake diplomas were sold, allowing people to apply for a nursing license even if they didn’t meet the requirements.

25 people were charged in the investigation for wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. They were making a lot of money from selling these fake credentials, around $114 million.

Omar Pérez Aybar from HHS-OIG said that selling and buying fake nursing diplomas is a crime that puts patients at risk and disrespects the nursing profession.

The people charged include owners, recruiters, and staff from three schools: Siena College of Health, Sacred Heart International Institute, and Palm Beach School of Nursing.

How the Original Fake Degree Scheme Worked

The key players in the 2005 scandal were three Florida-based online operations – Saint Regis University, Hartington University, and Corllins University. These “diploma mills” claimed to be legitimate universities issuing valid degrees. However, their “classes” involved no actual coursework or criteria.

Over 15 years, these diploma mills raked in over $7 million from more than 9,000 people by simply selling fake diplomas and transcripts for a fee. The owners ultimately received lengthy federal prison sentences.

The Fake Nursing Degree Scandal

On January 25, 2023, the government in Florida said more than twenty-five people got accused of tricking folks in a nurse scam using phones or computers.

As reported by ABC News, students bought fake nursing diplomas and transcripts from three Florida schools – Siena College of Health, Palm Beach School of Nursing, and Sacred Heart International Institute. These allowed them to skip important clinical requirements to become licensed nurses.

The Department of Justice stated these schools were making fake diplomas and records that students used to skip crucial exams and training. Five of the 27 people charged admitted to participating in the scam, including charging $15,000 for fake diplomas.

Related Article: Nurses Caught in Florida Fake Diploma Scandal Say Careers Have Been Ruined

Fake Nursing Degree Recipients Respond to Licenses Being Revoked

Many nurses caught up in this scandal claim they were misled and did not realize their education was fraudulent. As one nurse named David said to Newsweek, “Now it’s like you can’t even say where you studied, afraid of getting in trouble. People assume everyone from these schools bought their degrees, but that’s not true.”

Ramatu Ali from Delaware was one such nurse who thought she was legitimately enrolled at Palm Beach School of Nursing based on their marketing. She went to the school a few times and did clinical rotations, passing the licensing exam in 2020 before having her license revoked in 2022 when the school was exposed as a diploma mill.

Around 100 nurses are now being represented by lawyers like Jamal Jones of Miami, fighting to keep their licenses by showing they were victims duped by the schools and did not intentionally cheat.

“They’re really just focused on maintaining their license so they can continue to earn a living,” Jones said of his clients. “It’s a roller coaster every day, and your job is at risk. You don’t want to do anything because you don’t know when you’ll lose your job.”

Lessons Learned

These Florida diploma mill scandals highlight the crucial need for credential verification, especially in fields like healthcare where incompetence can be disastrous. They also underscore the ethical obligation of academic institutions to maintain integrity and not enable cheating or shortcuts to credentials.

While the specific Florida fake degree operations were shut down, academic fraud persists and requires ongoing vigilance from employers, regulators, and honest students alike. The risks of diploma mills threaten to undermine the reputations and value of legitimate degrees that require substantive hard work to earn.