A travel firm based in Leicester ran by three men has been running a multi-million pound scam. The firm falsely claimed to be licensed to sell Hajj pilgrimage package trips to Mecca. The three men falsified documents and used the logos of ATOL licensed companies to legitimise their business and take advantage of people wishing to visit the holy Muslim site.
After multiple complaints, Leicester City Council Trading Standards launched an investigation into the company and found that paying customers who used the travel agent were subjected to poor quality, dirty and dangerous accommodation and transport.
Judge Timothy Spencer chastised the three men in court and said: “For many, these trips should have been life-changing religious experience but quickly turned into a nightmare. You were exploiting their faith and you are a disgrace to the religion that you espouse”.
The offences took place between 2013 to 2016 when the business began to struggle with financial difficulties. During this period the firm fraudulently advertised themselves as ATOL and IATA protected to sell Hajj package pilgrimages worth £1.4 million, and a further £1.1 million for pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia. The packages cost £3,500 per person and included flights, travel, visa applications and hotel accommodations. Leicester Trading Standards, repeatedly warned the company to stop using ATOL and IATA logo’s on their advertising and documentation handed to customers, despite this, they continued to do so.
The three men were sentenced at Nottingham Crown Court after pleading guilty to fraud and for breaching the Package Travel Regulations. They were sentenced to two year prison sentences, each suspended for two years and banned from being company directors for 10 years.
What is the Hajj Pilgrimage ?
Every year millions of Muslims from around the world travel to Saudi Arabia to complete the Hajj Pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. The journey is seen as one of the five pillars of Islam which is central to the faith. Pilgrims spend five days praying in Mecca. It is a spiritual pilgrimage that every adult Muslim must perform at least once in their lives in order to be closer to god. In 2017, the number of pilgrims coming from outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to perform hajj was officially reported as 1,752,014 and 600,108 Saudi Arabian residents bringing the total number of pilgrims to 2,352,122.
Every year, pilgrims pay thousands of pounds for specialist Hajj flights and accommodation only for some to end up with non-existent journeys because fraudulent scammers pocket the cash, according to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). In other cases, agents are simply incompetent, so pilgrims end up with sub-standard trips. The issue is particularly prominent with Hajj as many book via local community agents, who may be unlicensed.
Before you book any pilgrimage, trip or holiday, make sure your agent is ABTA licenced. This will protect you if the company goes bust or you have a negative experience. And if you are a victim of fraud, you should report it to your local Trading Standards.