Every year more than two million Muslims celebrate Hajj by making the pilgrimage to Mecca in what is the world’s biggest annual gathering of people. Within this mass of humanity are thousands of UK citizens, many of whom will have saved for years in the knowledge that, for them, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime trip.Unfortunately as Hajj approaches there will also be a significant number of Muslims who have paid for a tour package for themselves and their family only to discover their dreams have been shattered by fraudsters.
Some will arrive in Saudi Arabia to discover the accommodation they booked does not exist while others will find that their whole trip is in fact a scam set up by illegitimate travel operators that have disappeared with thousands of pounds of their money. In response to this on-going threat to Muslims planning to make the trip to Mecca the City of London Police, which is the UK policing lead for fraud, has launched its national Hajj fraud prevention campaign for 2014.
How Hajj fraud happens
Muslims shopping around for the best deal on a trip to Mecca, both in their local community and increasingly online, are attracted by packages – flights, accommodation, visas – which appear to offer good value for money. Some operators advertise large reductions.
Individuals are asked to pay in cash or make a direct bank transfer prior to their trip and are told they will receive their tickets and travel documents nearer to the departure date. For some they never arrive.
Mohammed, 36, from Birmingham lost £4,500 to a Hajj fraud. He felt deeply embarrassed but, importantly, reported the crime to Action Fraud.
I was initially very careful to make sure I was only considering packages from legitimate travel companies. Unfortunately I then strayed onto websites that were offering very attractive deals, and I was persuaded to put my faith in them to deliver a great pilgrimage to Mecca. As Hajj drew closer no tickets arrived and my agent stopped returning my calls, until I finally reached the point when I realized I was a victim of Hajj fraud.
How to protect yourself and your loved ones from Hajj fraudsters
Do your research. Don’t book without carrying out some basic checks on your travel agency/ tour operator. A recommendation from a friend or family member does not guarantee the authenticity of the outfit. Go online and run a search on the travel company to see if other people have commented on their services.
Make sure your travel company is a member of a recognised trade association such as ABTA. All ABTA members have to follow a code of conduct and meet rigorous entry criteria, minimising the chance of fraudulent companies joining. You can verify a company’s ABTA membership at abta.com/go-travel/before-you-travel/find-a-member
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If you are booking a flight-based package make sure your travel company is ATOL (Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing) protected by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). If the travel company closes down whilst you are in Saudi Arabia your return air ticket should still be valid but you will probably be asked to repay for your accommodation. You can claim this cost from the CAA as well as a refund of your money if you have not travelled yet. You can check an ATOL at www.caa.co.uk
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Get everything in writing. Always get written terms and conditions as this details your contract with the travel company. Make sure your flight details, accommodation and Hajj visa are valid. Establish an auditable paper trail and keep records of financial transactions.
Do not pay the travel company by cash or by direct bank transfer into an individual’s account. Most legitimate companies will have facilities with a bank to accept credit or debit cards. If you do pay by bank transfer or cash and the company turns out to be fraudulent it will be virtually impossible to get your money back.
If you have been a victim of Hajj fraud
All reports are reviewed by the City of London Police’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau and can be used to identify serial offenders and form the basis of police investigations by local forces. Only by knowing the true scale and nature of the threat can law enforcement effectively target the fraudsters who are causing most harm to the Muslim community.
If you are having consumer related problems with your Hajj travel provider, please contact trading standards via the Citzens Advice Consumer Helpline on 03454 040506 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hajj fraud facts
25,000 British Muslims travel for Hajj each year
British Muslims spend as much as £125 million on pilgrimages annually
Police have reports of victims losing anything from £1000 – £33,000
42 is the average age of a Hajj fraud victim
The Council Of British Hajjis estimates that the number of victims reporting to Action Fraud is as little as 3%
Credit: UK Police