Consumer watchdogs in Birmingham are spearheading a nationwide probe in a bid to stop fraudsters ripping off Muslim pilgrims.
The city council has clinched £100,000 funding from the National Trading Standards Board to set up a taskforce to tackle crooks conning people booking religious Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia.
Birmingham Trading Standards is now working with officers from 15 other local authorities across the country – and has already scored success after seizing £400,000 and arresting two men in a sting in east London.
During the operation last month, the team joined City of London Police to swoop on a residential address and a travel agents as part of an ongoing investigation into fraud involved Hajj pilgrimages.
Sajeela Nasser, head of Birmingham Trading Standards, said: “We have been tackling this issue locally for a number of years and we realised the same thing must be happening elsewhere.
“We were thrilled when we got the funding we needed to be able to target our resources across the country to put a stop to this nationally.
“Every October more than two million Muslims celebrate Hajj by making the pilgrimage to Mecca – many of whom will have saved for years in the knowledge that, for them, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
“Unfortunately as Hajj approaches there will also be a significant number of Muslims who have paid for a tour package for themselves and their family only to discover their dreams have been shattered by fraudsters.
“Some will arrive in Saudi Arabia to discover the accommodation they booked does not exist while others will find that their whole trip is in fact a scam set up by illegitimate travel operators that have disappeared with thousands of pounds of their money.
“We are finding a lot of these traders are leaving leaflets in mosques and are operating online. Many use bogus addresses and falsely claim to have Air Travel Organiser’s Licence protection or are selling unlicensed pilgrimage packages with no ATOL protection.”
She urged anyone booking a flight-based package to ensure the travel company is ATOL protected by the Civil Aviation Authority.
She added: “ATOL protection is the Government backed financial protection scheme and means if your travel company collapse while you are in Saudi Arabia, you will be repatriated at no further cost.”
• Anyone who thinks they may have been a victim of Hajj fraud can email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040.