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 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.
Each year up to 25,000 British Muslims travel for Hajj spending around £125 million on their pilgrimages.
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”.