| 20 August 2012
The Metropolitan Police Service targets Hajj fraud as pilgrims prepare for their 2012 trip to Mecca, Vigilance can reveal.
The Muslim community is being warned to watch out for fraudsters who steal hundreds of thousands of pounds from pilgrims travelling to Mecca.
With just under three months to go until this year's Hajj [24 - 29 October], Vigilance learnt that the Metropolitan Police Service [MPS] is working alongside the Muslim community and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, operated by City of London Police, to raise awareness, as there are concerns pilgrims may be tempted by last minute deals from illegitimate travel operators promising Hajj visa packages.
An MPS source said that the criminals usually posed as legitimate travel operators, often offering discounts of up to 50 per cent on the normal travel price, but shortly before the departure the tour operator closes, leaving the victim with no tour and no prospect of a refund.
Despite work to raise awareness of the crime and encourage reporting, The Council of British Hajjis [CBHUK] estimates that some 300 people contacted their organisation in 2011 to say they believed they had been a victim of Hajj fraud, yet only one per cent reported the crime to police.
According to the MPS there are a number of things people can do to avoid falling victim to Hajj fraud:
Make sure your travel agent/tour operator is ATOL (Air Travel Organisers' Licensing) protected
= Check that your travel agent/tour operator is accredited by the Saudi Embassy
= Check exactly what you are paying for
= Get everything in writing.
MPS Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Steve Kavanagh, who is also chair of The London Muslim Communities Forum, said: "Hajj fraud is a particularly cruel crime which robs people of the means to make what could have been their once in a lifetime trip to Mecca.
"The Metropolitan Police works closely with the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau in the fight against fraud and we urge anyone who believes they have been a victim of Hajj fraud to contact Action Fraud or their local police force.”
DAC Kavanagh added: "By working together with the Muslim Community to raise awareness of Hajj fraud, we can stop the criminals who cause so much misery and help to protect those planning to make their own pilgrimage in 2012. "
Vigilance gathered that Wahid Zaman, 27, from Tower Hamlets was a victim of Hajj Fraud in 2008, losing £10,000 on a planned trip to Mecca with his family.
He was one of 300 unsuspecting Muslims who were defrauded out of more than half a million pounds by a travel agent who took their cash and passports, before disappearing, leaving clients desperately trying to make alternative arrangements for their pilgrimage
According to the police the agent was investigated by officers from Tower Hamlets CID, who were contacted by victims. Following a comprehensive inquiry, the agent was subsequently convicted and jailed in 2009 and many victims, including Mr Zaman, were financially compensated.
Mr Zaman said: "Hajj is a journey of a lifetime. My family and I were fulfilling a dream and were so much looking forward to it.
I booked the trip with a company recommended to me. I sat down with the agent - who I was told had been in the travel industry for a while. I didn't feel there was any need to question him, so I didn't second guess his opinion and I put my trust in him.
The agent asked for payment in the first week of October 2008 and we were due to fly out for Hajj in the November. I paid him £10,000 in advance, on the assumption that he would get the tickets and visas - and that meant we handed over our passports.
During the middle of October I started to call him for confirmation of the tickets and passports. When there was no reply, I realised he had left the country. "My family and I were devastated. The situation was very stressful and upsetting.
I was determined to address the situation and I contacted the police, who took my case very seriously. An investigation was carried out and the agent was convicted. I was also able to recuperate some of the money back.
I urge anyone who is planning to book their trip to Hajj to be aware, stay vigilant and check everything. A recommendation from a friend or family member does not guarantee the agent is authentic.
When booking your trip, double check your travel agent is registered with ATOL. Do not hand over money unless you are one hundred per cent sure that it is the right course of action, and do not give up your passport without checking.
A lot of Hajj fraud victims do not realise that help is at hand. I urge anyone who has been a victim of Hajj fraud to have the confidence to report it to the police. They are there to help and take Hajj fraud very seriously, as my case demonstrates.
Despite what happened to me and my family - we completed our pilgrimage that same year. We were absolutely determined. "
The Met would like anyone who believes they have been a victim of Hajj fraud should report to their local police or to Action Fraud, the UK's national fraud and internet crime reporting centre. Action Fraud has a facility to help individuals whose first language is not English.
The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau [NFIB] can use this information to quickly pinpoint where fraudsters are operating, and help police bring them to justice.
Detective Superintendent Dave Clark, Director of the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, said: "I would encourage pilgrims to be vigilant when arranging their trip and follow the advice given. It is essential that victims and people who may be aware of this type of crime report it to police or Action Fraud. Under-reporting of this type of crime, allows fraudsters to continue to target members of the Muslim community.
DS Clark added: "Hajj fraudsters operate very quickly and so time is of the essence when reporting frauds. Hajj frauds can be reported in a number of languages via Action Fraud".
Rashid Mogradia, CEO of the British Council of Hajjis (CBHUK), a charity which works for the welfare of British pilgrims, said: "Hajj is a journey of faith. For many this will be a memorable and positive life changing experience.
"For total peace of mind, we advise anyone booking a pilgrimage package to do so with reputable and authorised tour operators who hold a valid Air Travel Organisers Licence (ATOL) and are approved by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj.
"However, each year there are some who may fall foul to Hajj fraud. If you believe you have fallen victim to this type of crime, report it to the police and Action Fraud."
People who think they have been a victim of Hajj fraud should call their local police or: Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or OFT Consumer Direct on 08454040506.
General information and advice for Hajj pilgrims is available from:
Around 25,000 British Muslim pilgrims will make up around three million worldwide who will be performing Hajj in 2012
Around 66,000 British Muslims perform the lesser pilgrimage of Umrah throughout the year [The Information above has been provided by The Council of British Hajjis]
Action Fraud is the UK's national fraud reporting centre where you should report fraud if you have been scammed or defrauded.
Action Fraud provides a central point of contact for information about fraud and financially motivated internet crime. The service is run by the National Fraud Authority – the government agency that helps to co-ordinate the fight against fraud in the UK. Action Fraud work with partners in law enforcement, including the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, run by the City of London Police - to make sure fraud reports reach the right place.
The NFIB is government-funded and run by the City of London Police, which is the National Lead Force for fraud, in partnership with police forces and the public.
NFIB partners include the MPS - The Metropolitan Police Service is the largest police force in the UK, with 33,000 officers. It works closely with the City of London Police on a number of law enforcement issues, including the fight against fraud.
The London Muslim Communities Forum is the strategic advisory body for the Metropolitan Police Service.
The forum draws together senior police officers and staff, and representatives from the diverse Muslim communities in the capital and sits above newly formed local forums covering regions of London.
The aim of the LMCF is to help build better relations, and to engage and consult with London's Muslim communities more effectively.
The Council of British Hajjis (CBHUK) is a national charity working for the welfare of British pilgrims since 2006. This year the CBH will be fielding volunteers to Hajj to assist pilgrims by providing medical care and assistance and to realise the extent of the problem of Hajj fraud which goes unreported. It works closely with reputable and authorised tour operators, agencies and statutory bodies to tackle the issue for a better pilgrim experience.
The CBH is a partner of the Foreign & Commonwealth Offices - Know Before You Go Campaign. CBHUK is a registered charity no. 1146323.