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Birmingham travel agents targeted in Hajj fraud prevention drive

A string of travel agents in the Birmingham area have been visited today after being identified as potentially selling unlicensed package tours to Mecca.

Officers from the City of London Police, Civil Aviation Authority and Birmingham Trading Standards worked in partnership across the city as part of a national initiative to combat Hajj fraud.

Owners of the travel agents were warned about advertising themselves as being ATOL licensed when background checks revealed this may not be the case.

During the day of action, which was focused on education rather than direct enforcement, officers checked paperwork and stressed the need for compliance with industry regulations.

This comes just over a week before the City of London Police launches its annual national Hajj fraud prevention campaign, which has been designed to protect people who will be booking trips to Mecca to celebrate Hajj this autumn.

The campaign is being supported by 10 UK police forces and the Council of British Hajjis and will focus on getting key crime prevention messages to the Muslim community about criminals who pose as legitimate travel agents and sell fraudulent package tours to Mecca.

On average up to 25,000 British Muslims travel for Hajj each year, spending approximately £125 million on pilgrimages.

Detective Constable Stephen Kettle, from the City of London Police, said:

“Today’s action in Birmingham was about educating travel agents who we believe are claiming they are ATOL licensed when they are not. This means that anyone buying trips from them to Mecca to celebrate Hajj would think they have protection should anything go wrong with their booking, when in fact they are completely exposed.

“Over the next few weeks we will be working in partnership with agencies across the UK to raise awareness of Hajj fraud and to encourage victims of this devastating crime to report to Action Fraud.

Mark Rayner, Head of ATOL Compliance, said:

“Any UK travel business selling air packages, which includes Hajj pilgrimages, must have ATOL protection; it's as simple as that.

“ATOL is the financial protection scheme, which gives air travelers the peace of mind they won't lose their money and will get home safely - even if the travel business they book with goes bust.

“Sadly, we have seen cases of both high street and online travel businesses selling Hajj package deals that either don't have the ATOL protection they should have, or are falsely claiming to have ATOL protection when they are not a registered ATOL company. This potentially leaves consumers booking with these companies at risk of being left out of pocket.

“It is really important that anyone looking to travel to Mecca this September, as part of a Hajj pilgrimage, to look beyond the price and check, then double check that the travel business has ATOL protection and ensure they receive an ATOL certificate once they pay any money towards their trip.”

Chris Neville, Head of Trading Standards, for Birmingham City Council, said: 

“Trading Standards is here to protect Hajj pilgrims from being ripped off by unscrupulous travel providers and to ensure Hajj tour operators continue to receive the advice they need to trade legally.

“Birmingham City Council has successfully prosecuted a number of businesses over the past few years, which indicates the scale of the problem facing Hajj pilgrims when deciding which travel operator to use.

“We want pilgrims to know that we take their concerns seriously, understand their problems and will continue to work with our partners, including the City of London Police and Civil Aviation Authority, to tackle this area of criminality for the protection of Birmingham’s citizens.”

How to make sure you are ATOL protected.

  • Verify the ATOL Protected logo, which should include a number which is four to five digits long. If this number is not included, it could be a bogus travel firm.
  • Input the ATOL number and/or travel company name, into the Check an ATOL database, which has a list of all ATOL registered companies.
  • Make sure you receive an ATOL certificate once you have paid any money, including a deposit. On booking your flight-inclusive package, or flight plus accommodation, all ATOL protected UK travel companies must now issue an ATOL certificate as soon as the consumer pays any money towards their trip.

Bogus travel operators & the signs to look out for

  • The ATOL Protected logo may be poor quality and not include the four or five digit licence reference number.

  • Unusually cheap flights advertised to all parts of the world.

  • Poor contact details. Advertised telephone is not answered and has few if any other contact details, such as an address.

  • No online payment facility and customers are asked to pay for their flight bookings by bank transfer.

  • Once a deposit/fee has been paid, consumers are told the cost has gone up or asked to pay extra.

  • The consumer may receive a document referring to a reservation rather than a confirmed flight ticket or does not receive anything at all.

  • And just because a website ends in or a contact telephone number has a London dialling code, this does not always mean they are UK based - both of these can be operated from abroad.

  • Don't part company with your money if you have any doubts about an online travel company.