TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 25 Floridians in South Florida have been charged in a wire fraud scheme that created illegal licenses and employment shortcuts for aspiring nurses.

A federal grand jury indicted the individuals after an investigation by federal agents in the Southern District of Florida. The defendants “engaged in a scheme to sell fraudulent nursing degree diplomas and transcripts obtained from accredited Florida-based nursing schools.”

The customers were prospective nurses, seeking licenses and jobs as registered nurses and licensed practical/vocational nurses.

“The bogus diplomas and transcripts qualified purchasers to sit for the national nursing board exam and, after passing it, to obtain licenses and jobs in various states as RNs and LPN/VNs,” USDOJ reported. “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, Fla., Palm Beach School of Nursing in Palm Beach County, Fla., and Sacred Heart International Institute in Broward County.”

Federal agents reported that the schools are now closed, with each defendant facing up to 20 years in prison. The USDOJ said that this type of crime “unfortunately continue[s] to spring up, especially” in South Florida.

For those who put in the hard work, it’s disappointing.

“I’m very passionate about integrity,” said Marcellyne Penny, associate dean of nursing at Hillsborough Community College.

“It’s one of the things I talk to students about every semester about academic integrity it’s so critical. Nurses are one of the most trusted professions in this country, and we worked hard to earn that reputation.”

Penny said HCC offers rigorous nursing programs that include course work and clinicals.

“There are no shortcuts in nursing in when and when you do take a short cut sooner or later, it’s going to catch up with you,” she said.

Penny believes this scheme will change the accreditation process and the state’s role in allowing candidates to sit for their boards.

“We’re going to get in there dig in the trenches and turn this around because that’s what we do that’s what nurses do,” said Penny.

The number of people who received “fraudulent nursing credentials” is a danger because it puts them in “critical health care roles treating patients,” acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough, FBI Miami said.

“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, “ Yarbrough added.

According to USDOJ, “nursing applicants used the fake diplomas and transcripts they purchased from the owner and employees” of the various now-closed nursing schools to “obtain RN or LPN/VN licenses in various states and nursing jobs with unwitting health care providers throughout the country.”

“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,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe, said, adding that “a fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our health care system.”

While the “scheme” is a public safety concern, it also comes at a time when there is a national nursing shortage, including in Florida.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing forecasts a lack of nurses as more Americans age, particularly “as Baby Boomers age and the need for health care grows. Compounding the problem is the fact that nursing schools across the country are struggling to expand capacity to meet the rising demand for care.”

In the Sunshine State, the Florida Hospital Association said the nursing shortage is looming. A 2021 report by FHA predicted that by 2035, the state will be short more than 59,100 nurses.

“Florida needs nurses now and well into the future. A recent FHA study, prior to the current spike in COVID-19, showed an 11 percent vacancy rate for nurses this spring and that one in four nurses left their positions last year,” Mary C. Mayhew, President and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, said about the 2021 report. “As Florida’s population continues to grow, our healthcare system must be ready to meet the ever-increasing demand for services. A strong healthcare workforce and capacity in the education system to graduate needed nurses over the coming years are critical.”