Britain’s Muslims have lost almost £1 million (Dh4.97m) to bogus travel agents who target families booking once-in-a-lifetime trips to perform the Hajj.
Victims lost £988,743 between 2013 and 2017, anywhere between £1,000 (Dh4,974) to £33,000 (Dh164,000) per person, Action Fraud, the City of London Police operation which works with The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, said in a press release.
Some scams involve accommodation in Saudi Arabia that does not exist. Other travellers found their entire trip was a fraud set up by illegitimate travel operators who have disappeared with thousands of pounds.
There were 17 Hajj-related complaints to Action Fraud in 2017, a 143 per cent increase on 2016, with most of those incidents involving London, the West Midlands and Manchester, according to figures released on April 30.
But police and Action Fraud said the 17 reports are just the “tip of the iceberg, with many victims feeling too embarrassed, ashamed or frightened to report what has happened”. The average age of the fraud victims is 42.
“Many victims will have saved for years to be able to afford to travel to Saudi Arabia and as a result will be absolutely devastated when they find out that they have in fact been conned by fraudsters,” City of London Detective Sergeant Kevin Ives said.
Up to 25,000 British Muslims will book trips to Mecca to perform this year’s pilgrimage, which starts on August 19.
Authorities advise travellers to check online to ensure their travel agent is a member of a reputable organisation such as the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). Tourists booking flight-based travel packages should check that travel arrangements are protected by the Civil Aviation Authority Air Travel Organisers' Licence (Atol). That body ensures customers do not get stranded abroad or lose money, and provides assistance in the event of a travel company failure.
Babur Hussain, 53, from Greater Manchester, was jailed for 14 months for fraud in 2017 after claiming that he was organising Atol-protected Hajj trips.
Travellers should also get everything in writing, keep all travel receipts, report any problems to Action Fraud online or phone 0300 123 2040 within the UK.
“Every year fraudsters target pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia, as very large sums of money are at stake,” said Mark Tanzer, chief executive of ABTA.
“Fraudsters rely on the fact that some pilgrims may not be aware of the strict regulations governing package travel, or the benefits of booking through companies who belong to a recognised trade body, like ABTA. This kind of fraud is particularly despicable as pilgrims may never again be in position to fulfil this religious duty.”
Rashid Mogradia, chief executive officer of the Council of British Hajjis, called the crimes “despicable” and encouraged all pilgrims to report problems.
“In prosecuting rogue travel agents for Hajj travel fraud over many years, we have learnt that pilgrims are often unaware of their legal rights or may try to resolve the issues themselves rather than approach the authorities."