Hajj scams on the rise as pilgrimage season nears, authorities say

Scammers usually target people via social media

TOPSHOT - An aerial view shows Muslim pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on September 3, 2017, during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. / AFP PHOTO / BANDAR ALDANDANI
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Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Cairo has warned against online Hajj scams that promise pilgrims fast-track services.

The embassy said in a statement on Saturday that those wishing to perform the pilgrimage in the kingdom should make sure that the name of the Hajj services provider is listed on the official website of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah.

Last year, scammers disseminated advertisements via Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp with the promise that they provide “all-inclusive packages”.

After they receive payment, they fail to deliver any of the services, including air tickets, accommodation and transportation.

Ambassador Osama bin Ahmed Naqli, who also serves as Saudi Arabia's permanent representative to the Arab League, said that every year as Hajj season approaches, the embassy starts to monitor advertisements through social media.

“Some of these sites are fake and fabricated, they work outside the system and outside the offices that work in co-operation between Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” the embassy statement said.

However, this is not unique to Egypt.

Earlier this week, Mohammed Al Qirshi, a board member of the Executive Committee for Hajj companies, warned against scammers in Saudi Arabia that reappear on the market in the months leading up to Hajj season.

Hajj fraud is prevalent throughout the world as booking a trip to perform the pilgrimage cannot be done without the aid of local offices delegated by the Saudi authorities.

Each country can be designated more than one service provider through the countries’ respective Hajj authorities.

But third-party offices can also handle cases and provide expedited Hajj travel arrangements.

That is often the guise used by scammers when trying to lure Hajj-goers into signing up last-minute for the pilgrimage.

Read more: Saudi launches new Hajj website for Qataris despite efforts to block 

Last year, at least 17 British Muslims fell victim to fraudsters, according to Action Fraud, a UK-based National Fraud and Cyber Crime reporting centre.

They lost between Dh4,000 and Dh158,000 in the UK to these fraudsters posing as Hajj services providers.

According to the institute, however, only three per cent of victims report being victims of a Hajj scam.

Muslims unfit to perform Hajj, typically for health reasons, can achieve the mandatory pilgrimage by paying for someone else to perform it on their behalf as a form of charity.

This, too, is used by scammers to try to trick people into signing up last-minute for the Hajj.

As Hajj season approaches — on Eid Al Adha that is expected to fall on August 22 this year— people will post advertisements for Muslims wanting to perform the Hajj but who cannot afford it.

By luring people into thinking they will be paying for someone else's Hajj, scammers can receive payments from multiple sources to fund a single real case of a low-income Muslim looking to perform Hajj. Payments can reach up to Dh10,000.