British Muslims booking trips to Mecca this September to celebrate Hajj are being warned about the threat of fraudsters trying to con them with bogus travel packages.
The City of London Police is this week (1-5 June) 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 across the country, speaking to Muslim community leaders and distributing Hajj fraud prevention leaflets in residential areas and local mosques.
The campaign is being supported by the Council of British Hajjis, Get Safe Online, ABTA, ATOL and Trading Standards who will all be raising awareness via 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 87 people reported to Action Fraud that they had fallen victim to Hajj fraud, with the total losses running to £237,995. But the Council of British Hajjis and the City of London Police believe the true scale of this criminality is much greater, with many people feeling too ashamed to report to authorities what has happened to them.
A travel agent from South London, lost £10,000 to Hajj fraudsters in 2013 when he purchased Hajj travel packages on behalf of some of his customers. He said:
“I run a travel business and pride myself on finding good deals for customers. On this occasion I had been asked by five people to find them a Hajj travel package.
“The initial deal I found fell though which meant I had to go with suppliers that I hadn’t used before. I sent them £10,000 to pay for all the bookings, which included flights, accommodation, food and visas. However none of tickets came through and I later found out that the visas hadn’t even been applied for.
“I spoke to the suppliers but they made excuses for not providing the tickets and said they would send a refund, which they never did. I have lost a significant amount of money due to these fraudsters which severely affected my business. It still makes me angry to think about this and I’m also aware that there are people around the country, who fall victim to this type of fraud and end up not being able to go to Mecca as a result, which is absolutely terrible”.
On 20 April this year, the City of London Police worked with regional fraud teams and Birmingham Trading Standards to crack down on suspected Hajj fraud. The officers visited a business premise in Ashton under Lyne in Greater Manchester and arrested three people on suspicion of fraud by false representation.
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:
“This is the third consecutive year we have run a Hajj fraud campaign reflecting our commitment and determination to raise awareness of this type of fraud in Muslim communities across the UK.
“June and July is the most common time for Muslims to book their Hajj trips and search for possible travel deals which is why we are running the campaign at this point in the year.
“We will be working with police forces with large Muslim populations as well as Muslim groups to ensure that this message reaches the right people and helps them to protect themselves from these ruthless criminals”.
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 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.
Victoria Bacon ABTA Head of Communications said:
“Fraudsters regularly target pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia as often large sums of money are at stake. They rely on the fact that pilgrims may not be aware of the strict regulations in place governing the sale of package travel arrangements in the UK and in many cases travel arrangements are of a much lower standard than promised or, in the worst cases, simply do not exist. We fully support the police in their aim to educate pilgrims about the dangers of fraud and how to ensure that their trips both go ahead and are also at the standard which they have paid for.”
Andy Cohen, Head of ATOL at the CAA, said:
“ Any UK travel business selling air packages, which includes Hajj pilgrimages, must have ATOL protection; it’s as simple as that.
“ATOL is the financial protection scheme, which gives air travellers the peace of mind they won’t lose their money and will get home safely - even if the travel business they book with goes bust.
“Sadly, we have seen cases of businesses selling Hajj package deals that either don’t have the ATOL protection they should have, or are falsely claiming to have ATOL protection when they are not a registered ATOL company. This potentially leaves consumers booking with these companies at risk of being left out of pocket.
“It is really important customers look beyond the price and check and double check that the travel business has ATOL protection - and ensure they receive an ATOL certificate once they pay any money towards their trip.”
Rashid Mogradia, CEO at the Council of British Hajjis said :
“The net on rouge tour operators who choose to exploit pilgrims is closing in, and we commend the efforts made by the City of London Police in cracking down on these fraudsters.
Our research shows that around 60% of pilgrims booking a pilgrimage package did not check the ATOL of a tour operator prior to booking a pilgrimage package, leaving themselves and their families exposed to risks should things go wrong.
We urge prospective travellers to book with ATOL and Ministry of Hajj licensed tour operators and be more diligent when booking a Hajj or Umrah package by following the advice of the City of London Police to avoid becoming a victim of travel fraud”.
Cllr Barbara Dring, Chair of Birmingham City Council’s Licensing and Public Protection Committee, said:
“Trading Standards is here to protect Hajj pilgrims from being ripped off by unscrupulous Hajj travel providers and to ensure pilgrims continue to receive specialist advice and help before, during and after their pilgrimage.
“Birmingham City Council has taken enforcement action against many businesses over the past few years, which indicates the scale of the problem facing Hajj pilgrims when deciding which travel operator to use. We have successfully prosecuted such operators for a number of years, and we are finding many more operators like these who are trading nationally through the internet or advertising.
“It’s important that we take action where appropriate, both to protect pilgrims and to ensure a level playing field for all businesses. We want pilgrims to know that we take their concerns seriously, understand their problems and will work with our partners to tackle this area of criminality.”
Tony Neate, CEO, Get Safe Online:
“Unfortunately, three years on, we are still seeing cases of criminals being opportunistic and using any method they can to scam innocent people. These sorts of fraudsters are clever and adaptable, but it’s important to remember that not one of their schemes would work without people handing over payment.
“If you are booking to go and celebrate Hajj this year, make sure you know the danger signs ahead of booking so you can make sure you don’t fall victim. Take your time, do as much research as you can and look for signs that assure you the provider is exactly who they say they are –for example, are they a member of ABTA? It is often much easier to find proof a company is legitimate than evidence they are fraudulent. Only make payment arrangements once you feel as confident as possible the other party is above board. For many, Hajj is of huge personal significance so it’s important scammers don’t ruin this once in a lifetime experience.”
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