British Muslims booking trips to Mecca this October to celebrate Hajj are being warned about the threat of fraudsters trying to con them with bogus travel packages.
City of London Police is this week (June 30 to July 4) launching a national campaign targeted at keeping people out of the clutches of fraudsters as they search for the best deals to take them to Saudi Arabia for what for many will be a once in a life-time trip.
The focus is on local engagement, with officers from forces in England, Scotland and Wales speaking to Muslim community leaders and distributing Hajj fraud prevention leaflets (available in seven languages) in residential areas, mosques and at several airports.
The campaign is being supported by the Council of British Hajjs, the Association of British Hujjaj and the Government’s Hajj Taskforce, with the City of London Police also working in partnership with National Trading Standards Board, Get Safe Online and ABTA, The Travel Association, to raise awareness via digital and social media.
Each year up to 25,000 British Muslims travel for Hajj spending around £125 million on their pilgrimages.
Unfortunately a significant number who have paid for tour packages for themselves and their family have arrived in Saudi Arabia to discover their accommodation is either very low quality or does not even exist, while others have found their whole trip is a scam set up by illegal travel operators that have disappeared with their money.
Last year around 200 people reported falling victim to some form of Hajj fraud to Action Fraud and Trading Standards. But the British Council of Hajjis and City of London Police believe the true scale of this criminality to be much greater, with many people feeling too ashamed to report to authorities what has happened to them.
To view the Hajj fraud video or the Hajj fraud leaflet, which is translated into seven languages, please go to: http://www.cityoflondon.police.uk/hajjfraudinformation
City of London Police Commander Steve Head, who is the Police National Coordinator for Economic Crime and is leading the national Hajj fraud campaign, said: “June and July is when most Muslims book their trips to Hajj, searching online and through local tour operators to find the best possible deal. Unfortunately hiding behind some of the most attractive travel packages are criminals running scams designed to take thousands of pounds from pilgrims and leave them stranded abroad or left at home and totally missing out on Hajj.
“This year we are working with police forces, Muslim groups, national trading standards and the Association of British Travel Agents to get our Hajj fraud prevention advice to those who need it most, engaging with Muslims in their own communities and through traditional, social and digital media. Being aware of the dangers and following a basic checklist before booking will ensure families enjoy a trip of a lifetime to Mecca while the criminals are left empty handed.”
The best ways to protect yourself and loved ones from Hajj fraudsters is to:
- Do your research – don’t book without carrying out some basic check on your travel agency/tour operator. Go online to see if other people have commented on their services and check the company is accredited by the Ministry of Hajj and is a member of ABTA.
- 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.
- Get everything in writing and make sure your flight details, accommodation and Hajj visa are valid.
- Do not pay the travel company by cash or by direct bank transfer into an individual’s account as if they turn out to be fraudulent it will be virtually impossible to get your money back.
Last year Muzaffar Iqbal, from Rochdale, lost more than £7,000 to Hajj fraudsters, only finding out a few days before he and wife were due to travel to Saudi Arabia that the trip they had been dreaming about for months was not going to happen.
Mr Iqbal said: “I paid up front for a full Hajj package – flights, accommodation and visas – for my wife and I to make what was going to be our first visit to Mecca. But a few days before our departure date I received a call saying the visas had not arrived and we would have to delay our flights.
“A couple of weeks later this story changed to the travel company we had booked with had gone bankrupt meaning our pilgrimage was now cancelled. I know of at least 90 people who were told the same story, some of whom got a few hundred pounds back while most, including us, lost the lot. Nine months on, I still feel very angry and upset about what has happened to us and so many other people. This was supposed to be a trip of a lifetime and now the chance to do Hajj has probably been taken away from us forever.”
Rashid Mogradia, CEO of the Council of British Hajjis said: “We have recently been working hard with licensed ATOL and Saudi Ministry of Hajj Tour Operators who are equally concerned about the damage this (Hajj fraud) is doing to the industry and more so to individuals and families who save up during their lifetime to fulfil their religious obligation of Hajj.
“As a community we are striving to eradicate the term ‘Hajj fraud’ and appreciate the City of London Police for taking the initiative to tackle it head on. We urge people to exercise caution when booking a pilgrimage package by checking that the company holds a validATOL and Ministry of Hajj licence and report any suspicious activity or fraud to the authorities.”
Councillor Barbara Dring, Chair of Birmingham City Council’s Licensing and Public Protection Committee, said: “This year Birmingham Trading Standards is coordinating Hajj investigations for trading standards services across the country to ensure that pilgrims continue to receive specialist help and advice, before, during and after their pilgrimage.
“Trading Standards is here to protect Hajj pilgrims from being ripped off by unscrupulous Hajj travel providers. In the last few years Birmingham Trading Standards alone have taken enforcement action against 18 businesses.
“This is indicative of the scale of the problem that Hajj pilgrims face, when deciding which travel operator to use. We know that it is important that we take action where appropriate both to protect pilgrims and to ensure a level playing field for all businesses. Trading Standards wants pilgrims to know that will take your concerns seriously, that we understand your problems and we will work with our partners to tackle this area of criminality.”
Steve Abrahamson, ABTA Risk, Claims and Membership Administration Manager, said: “Every year the Police, Trading Standards offices and ABTA have to deal with cases of Hajj pilgrims who have lost substantial amounts of money or arrived in Saudi Arabia to find that their accommodation and other travel arrangements are of a much lower standard than they had paid for.
“Fraudsters exploit the fact that many pilgrims are unaware of the strict regulations set up to protect people booking travel arrangements – the City of London police’s ongoing campaign is an important step in helping to stop Hajj fraudsters in their tracks. For many the Hajj is a once in a lifetime experience, and of huge personal significance – the advice that the police and ABTA have produced should ensure that as far as possible, this important experience are safeguarded.”
Harry Watkinson, Senior Economic Crime Communications Officer, City of London Police, on 0207 601 2015 or email email@example.com