British police have launched a campaign warning Muslims planning to go on pilgrimage that they could lose thousands of pounds to phony travel companies.
The City of London police and six other UK forces launched the campaign this week to raise awareness of fraudulent travel agencies offering package deals to Mecca, where Muslims around the world travel to in order to perform Hajj, an obligatory pilgrimage in Islam.
According to the police, around 25,000 British Muslims travel to Mecca every year and spend more than £125 million booking flights, accommodation, and travel.
Police say a "significant number" of Muslims booking pilgrimage tours have fallen victim to scams, with some not even receiving travel documents or hotel rooms.
According to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, 87 people reported that they were victims of scams while booking a Hajj trip last year, losing a total of £237,995.
However, police believe the real this number is actually much higher in reality, as it does not account for Muslims who are reluctant to talk about being a victim of fraud.
Many of those who reported scams to the police had lost money while booking all-inclusive package trips, with some reportedly spending thousands on invalid visas or on hotels that were either below standard or even non-existent.
"It's largely underreported crime," a City of London police spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
"They don't want to complain they had a bad experience on their pilgrimage. People who go are very devout and if they had a bad experience, they believe the fraudster will eventually have comeuppance in the next life."
One man told BuzzFeed News that he lost around £3,000 after he booked a Hajj trip with a fake travel agent.
Imran Mohammed, from Bolton, told BuzzFeed News that he booked a package deal for himself, his wife, and his mother in July 2013 after seeing a deal online.
"It looked legitimate, and I had seen the company promoted on Facebook." he said. "When I looked at the website, it looked like any other travel service.
"I phoned them up on a landline, and the person who answered it sounded like any other travel agent. He was very polite on the phone, asked about any health concerns for my mother, and talked about how other people who had apparently used the service had the best experience at Hajj. I ended up paying just under £3,000 for flights, visas, and two hotel rooms near the city centre.
"I was told I would receive all the relevant documents in the following weeks after I gave them my bank account details. But I didn't receive the letters. About three weeks later, I tried to call again, but got no response. The next week, I couldn't even access the phone."
Mohammed is currently working with a local solicitor to seek compensation for his loss.
"My wife and I were upset, of course," he added. "We're very religious and any Muslim always dreams about going on Hajj. But my mum was heartbroken, you know. She's spent her whole life working so hard, and praying to Allah to visit the holy city. Inshallah [god willing] she will be able to travel to Mecca this year."
The Council of British Hajjis (CBHUK), a non-profit charity working to ensure the welfare of British Muslims travelling for pilgrimage, says that people should only trust accredited travel services.
"From our research, people are increasingly looking for deals and they should avoid tempting websites and "too good to be true" deals by carrying out proper research into the tour operator," Rashid Mogradia, CEO of the Council of British Hajjis, told BuzzFeed News.
'We recommend to look at the business in question and whether it's been licensed. Can also look at web forums or talk to family and friends."
The organisation has seen an increasing number of services from individuals and unofficial companies offering package deals who "were not industry-recognised", he said.
"While we support the work the city of London are doing, we are looking to launch the CBHUK-verified white list of Hajj tour operators," he said. "That list will have an in-depth analysis and verification of tour operators that are licensed. We will have verified these organisations so that people are better informed, knowing that they've been verified."
Hussein Kesvani is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Hussein Kesvani at Hussein.Kesvani@BuzzFeed.com.
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