Oct. 11 - Tens of thousands of British Muslims are believed to have been victims of a scam which has shattered their dreams of a once-in-a lifetime religious pilgramage to Mecca. Hayley Platt reports.
It's a journey that every Muslim must take at least once in their life, if they're physically able, and can afford it. Millions will soon make the pilgrimage to Mecca for Haj, including around 25,000 from Britain. But thousands are thought to have had their dreams shattered after being sold fake travel packages. Detective Inspector Craig Mullish has been investigating. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CITY OF LONDON POLICE, DETECTIVE INSPECTOR CRAIG MULLISH, SAYING: "The areas we've identified are Muslim members of the community paying cash for packages such as flights, visa, accommodation with... there's no paperwork, and the packages are said to be delivered by way of tickets very shortly before the pilgrimage to Haj. So people arrive in airports with no flight, or they arrive in Saudi Arabia with no accommodation." Only 44 Haj related fraud reports have been filed this year - but police believe the actual figure could be in the tens of thousands, with many not speaking out due to embarrassment. But Mohsin Tutla from the Council of British Hajiis says it's not just about the financial loss, which averages between 3 and £3,500 per person. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MEMBER OF COUNCIL OF BRITISH HAJIIS, MOHSIN TUTLA, SAYING: "It's the fact that a lot of pilgrims have prepared for it, and if they don't have the opportunity to go or it's been taken away from them, they feel like they've been rejected, rejected by God. Because it's all often spoken that Haj is an invitation, it's a calling from God and you're privileged to be here and you should value that. So when that opportunity is taken away from them, people feel rejected, and that's extremely disheartening for any person." The annual gathering has become a lucrative business - with British muslims alone spending around £125 million a year on Haj. Not much is known about who is doing the scamming, according to Gillian Edwards from the Association of British Travel Agents. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ABTA (ASSOCIATION OF BRITISH TRAVEL AGENTS SENIOR PR MANAGER, GILLIAN EDWARDS, SAYING: "They tend to set up very quickly, maybe like just a few months before the Haj booking season, and then they disappear very quickly by the time haj comes around. And one of the issues is that very few people actually report haj fraud. It's probably about one of 10 cases that actually get reported." Police are working across the UK to combat the crime. And despite the spiritual nature of the product, it's still a case of buyer beware.