The successful work done by Birmingham City Council's Trading Standards team to tackle Hajj fraud has led to the authority becoming the national lead in combating what is traditionally seen as an under-reported crime.
Compliance in Birmingham is now so high that the National Trading Standards Board has given Birmingham £100,000 funding to help replicate this success in other cities with large Muslim populations.
The largest gathering of Muslims in the world each year, Hajj is a pilgrimage that all adult Muslims are required to make at least once in their lives, if they are physically and financially able to do so.
Tens of thousands of British Muslims will have booked trips to Saudi Arabia in October to make the pilgrimage. However, some of these will unfortunately find that the once-in-a-lifetime trips they have booked will not live up to expectations - either due to sub-standard hotels and travel arrangements or, worse still, the flights, accommodation and visas they have paid for never existed in the first place.
However, as Sajeela Naseer, Head of Trading Standards at Birmingham City Council, explains, one of the key challenges in tackling Hajj fraud is encouraging those affected by it to come forward.
She says: “There are various reasons why victims don't come forward. For example, because Hajj is a religious pilgrimage, an unscrupulous tour operator might argue that it's not a luxury holiday and therefore if people complain that the promised five-star hotel didn't materialise then it will impact on their spiritual rewards.
“Additionally, rogue traders are often members of the community, so people are wary of speaking out against them. These Hajj packages are often advertised in mosques, so people will naturally trust in what they are advertising.
“Package tour operators have a captive audience because visas for Hajj have to be booked through these companies - people can't do it themselves. This then leaves pilgrims exposed to criminals who wish to exploit them.
“There is also an issue of trust regarding the authorities - members of the community might know we exist to help them but they may not want to approach us. This has been one of the biggest barriers.
“What we want is for customers to come forward and tell us if it's all going wrong for them - for example, if they have paid money and haven't received their flight tickets. We need people to start speaking to us.”
Birmingham City Council's Trading Standards secured a conviction following what is believed to have been one of the first Hajj fraud-related prosecutions in 2011, with the defendant receiving a 15-month custodial sentence.
The victim came forward because Sajeela and her team had already been engaging with community organisations to look into the issue of Hajj fraud. This, in turn, resulted in more pilgrims being persuaded to come forward and tell the council if they had been misled or had a bad experience, as well as helping Trading Standards identify businesses which were misleading consumers.
It was this success which led to Birmingham becoming the national lead on Hajj fraud, working closely with organisations such as the Council of British Hajjis. Today, Birmingham is also working in partnership with City of London Police, an arrangement which led to a successful raid in London on August 20 in which £400,000 was seized.
“We have turned it around in Birmingham,” says Sajeela, “so the National Trading Standards Board set up a national taskforce led by Birmingham Trading Standards to help other local authorities tackle the problem in their areas.
“We want a consistent approach across all Trading Standards authorities across the country. The key is to share intelligence - we need to have the whole picture, because even if a business is based in one city, it can still be trading all over the country.”
One of the key issues is the increasing number of people turning to the internet to book their Hajj trip. However, as Sajeela warns, this can leave them open to fraud.
“If you book your trip through a shop then you know who are you talking to and where they are based, but not if you are buying online,” she says.
“What we are finding is that although an operator may give a London address or telephone number, they may actually be based abroad. In other words, the operator purchases a London number but the address is just a front. If a business is based abroad then there is no protection whatsoever.”
Looking ahead, Sajeela is confident that the work carried by Birmingham Trading Standards so far will lead to Hajj fraud becoming more widely reported and, ultimately, pilgrims being able to book their Hajj trips in confidence.
She says: “It's all about breaking down these barriers that stop people coming forward. I'm really positive that this year we will see a different relationship between pilgrims, Trading Standards and the police, where we are all working together to improve the Hajj experience.
“We are doing our utmost to protect the travel arrangements of pilgrims, while enabling enforcement action to take place against rogue traders.”
Anyone who has concerns about Hajj travel packages or thinks they may have been a victim of Hajj fraud can email email@example.com (regardless of where they are in the country) or contact Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or visit www.actionfraud.police.uk.
How to protect yourself and your loved ones from Hajj fraudsters
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).
A legitimate ATOL logo will have a four or five digit number and can be checked online at: www.caa.co.uk/checkanatol.
ATOL protection is the Government backed financial protection scheme and means if your travel company collapses while you are in Saudi Arabia, you will be repatriated at no further cost. The CAA will also do everything possible to ensure you can finish and enjoy your holiday without disruption.