British Muslims have lost almost a million pounds to haj-related frauds in the past five years.
The number of such crimes involving pilgrimages to Mecca has risen by 143 per cent in the past year, according to Action Fraud, a reporting service. Muslim leaders and police believe that these figures are “just the tip of the iceberg” as many victims are too embarrassed or ashamed to report the crime.
Victims have lost between £1,000 and £33,000 each, Action Fraud says. Many are duped by fake travel agents and tour operators, who request payment by bank transfer, then vanish. Such payments are not protected by the Consumer Credit Act.
Other victims arrive to find their accommodation does not exist. “Many victims will have saved for years to be able 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,” Detective Sergeant Kevin Ives, of the City of London Police, said.
Each year more than 25,000 haj pilgrims travel from Britain, many on a once-in-a-lifetime trip using their life savings. The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) says that haj- related scams are attractive to fraudsters because the pilgrimage typically costs thousands of pounds a person and families often travel together.
Last month the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau said the average victim of travel-related fraud was conned out of about £1,500. However, Abta says individual cases of haj-fraud are often five or six times this amount. A spokesman for Abta said: “Legitimate travel companies selling haj trips have told us that awareness of Abta and Atol [Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing] is often low in sections of the Muslim community and fraudsters are exploiting this lack of knowledge to the full.”
Travel arrangements that are sold in the UK with flights and accommodation must have an Atol certificate, which financially protects travellers.
Action Fraud is launching a campaign to warn about haj fraud before this year’s pilgrimage, which starts on August 19. Police and trading standards also plan a clampdown on bogus travel agents using spot checks and raids.
Last year Babur Hussain, 53, from Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, was jailed for 14 months for fraud after claiming that the haj trips he had organised were Atol protected.