Two people in Lancashire have fallen victim to fraudsters cashing in on the annual pilgrimage made by Muslims - with some organisations fearing the figure is the tip of the iceberg.
A Chorley family were among the thousands of Muslims planning to make the once in a lifetime journey to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, but they have been hit by scammers.
The Hajj pilgrimage, a religious duty, is one of the most significant and spiritual journeys a Muslim makes and must be carried out at least once by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so.
But in recent years travellers from Lancashire have been hit by bogus tour operators that have failed to deliver on bookings.
Some victims have lost up to £20,000.
Lancashire’s Trading Standards team, which is already investigating the two known complaints regarding the issue this year, is working in partnership with Lancashire Police, Lancashire Council of Mosques and the Muslim community to ensure all travel agents and tour operators adhere to industry guidelines when offering Hajj and Umrah package deals.
Lee Ormandy, of Trading Standards, said: “Unfortunately the large numbers of Muslim pilgrims travelling every year are a significant target for both outright criminals and unprofessional tour operators who don’t follow the rules.
“The operations they run can be quite sophisticated using websites and printed information which can look very convincing.
“The only way to avoid any problems is to use a reputable tour operator and to check they are listed with the approved agencies.”
He added: “If you have problems please gather evidence and tell us so we can try to prevent others having the same experience in future.”
In some cases bogus tour operators offer trips at knock-down prices and then close the company down just before the departure date.
Other common complaints include paying for a five star hotel, but getting a poor quality cramped room, flight tickets and visas not arriving, and operators making last minute changes to flights.
According to The Council of British Hajjis, the issue is massively under reported.
Trading Standards bosses are now advising travellers to make sure their tour operator is Atol protected, check they are accredited by the Saudi Embassy and to get an agreement of what they are paying for in writing.
They also recommend checking the tour operator is on the approval list at www.hajinformation.com
Victims can contact Citizen’s Advice on 0845 404 0506.
People who have a problem on the pilgrimage should let their tour operator’s representative know immediately. It is useful to take photos and statements from other pilgrims, highlighting the problem.
For more information log on to www.lancashire.gov.uk/tradingstandards or The Council of British Hajjis (Pilgrims) www.the-cbh.org.uk/ or The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) at www.fco.gov.uk/hajj