An estimated 20,000 British Muslims will travel to Saudi Arabia for Hajj in October, and UK authorities are concerned about the number of fraudulent packages on sale.
The “Hajj Fraud Awareness Campaign,” a collaboration between the Council of British Hajjis and the City of London police, is due to begin this week.
The Hajj, which is the world’s biggest annual gathering, begins on Oct. 13. Increasingly, British Muslims have been affected by fraudsters looking to exploit pilgrims.
Number of pilgrims
In 2012, there were 44 reports of Hajj fraud made to British police, but the true scale of this criminality is thought to be much greater, according to the CBH.
For most pilgrims, Hajj will be a truly memorable experience, the fulfilment of a religious obligation that is required once in a lifetime for Muslims.
According to the Council, this year has been “particularly challenging,” due to changes in Hajj rules that include a reduction in quotas, and a clampdown on the number of “repeat” pilgrims, prohibiting visits from those who have made the pilgrimage in the last five years.
The cutbacks are due to the expansion of the Masjid al-Haram mosque, which will be carried out over the next three years.
Despite the reduction of the UK Hajj quota from 25,000 to 20,000 people, CBH CEO Rashid Mogradia expects the level of criminality to increase.
“We expect the figure to be at least around the 1,000 mark, maybe a few thousand,” Mogradia told Al Arabiya.
Level of fraud
“The problem is people often don’t come forward and report it [fraud], out of embarrassment or repercussions from the tour operators themselves. People are frightened of the consequences of taking it further,” said Mogradia.
“People know who these people are, and they often feel that it’s not worth taking it forward, so they suffer in silence,” he added.
This is the case despite the increasing cost of Hajj packages, and the fact that saving up for the pilgrimage is a long-term commitment for many.
“Fraudulent companies are charging similar amounts of money [to legitimate tour providers], you can’t distinguish by price,” Juel Choudhury, director of British company Premier Hajj, told Al Arabiya.
“They’re not ripping them off with prices, they’re selling a package they can’t fulfil,” Choudhury added.
In a statement published by the City of London Police, Commander Steve Head described Hajj fraud as “a devastating crime that every year is robbing Muslims of a once in a life-time opportunity to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.”
In the statement, Farooq Murad, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, emphasized the need for prospective pilgrims to be “vigilant and ensure that only reputable operators with proper license are used.”
How to avoid being a victim
Mogradia explained how to avoid becoming a victim of Hajj fraud.
“Number one: check that the tour operator is signed up to an ATOL scheme.
“Number two: check that the company has the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Hajj accreditation.
“Number three: that they’re a legitimate business in the UK, which can be checked by going to Companies House.
“Number four: talk to family and friends for personal recommendations.
“Number five: visit the tour operator at their business address. We’ve had instances in the past where people have sent a payment online, and found that when they go to the alleged business address, there’s no business, it’s a boarded-up shop.”
Mogradia also advised making payments by credit card. “That way there’s a money trail, and a paper trail as well.”
What do if you have been affected by fraud
“If someone has been affected by fraud, immediately they need to report it to the police,” said Mogradia.
He emphasized the need to report Hajj fraud to Action Aid, a new agency headed by the City of London police.
Often, people will not be aware that they are a victim of fraud until they arrive in Mecca.
In this case, “they should talk to their tour operator before talking to the Ministry of Hajj, and they’ll be surprised how quickly the tour operator will rectify it in Saudi Arabia,” said Mogradia. “The last thing they want is to lose their license to provide pilgrim services.”
Is it all a big mistake?
Asked about the possibility of a misunderstanding, Mogradia is doubtful.
“If the tour operator sold what he says he’s been selling, and pilgrims will see what they’ve got, then more than likely it’s down to greed,” he said.
“The total value of the industry is around £125 million in the UK alone. We suspect 10 percent of people to be affected by fraud or mis-selling, deliberate mis-selling. We want to make sure people exercise caution,” said Mogradia, adding that Hajj fraud is “a world-wide phenomenon.”
According to the City of London police, “fraudsters do not discriminate against age, gender or location.”