Hajj pilgrims warned over Mecca trip fraudsters
Muslims going on pilgrimage to Mecca have been warned against bogus tour operators offering cheap trips.
The Council of British Hajjis said a 20% cut in the number of pilgrims allowed by Saudi authorities could be exploited by unscrupulous firms.
The Bolton-based charity said as a result cases of fraud were expected to be higher than usual.
The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and every Muslim is called to undertake it at least once.
This year, the Saudi government has reduced the quota of people able to travel on the Hajj by 20%, due to redevelopment work.
Travel agent Abdul Patel, who organises genuine Hajj tours from Bolton, said as a result demand was outstripping supply for the mid-October pilgrimage to Mecca.
"At the moment I only have 12 visas left and we've sold some of our packages completely," he added.
The shortage means fake companies are also being set up.
Rashid Mogradia, director of the Council of British Hajjis, said: "People are actually setting up businesses now just to try and scheme money out of pilgrims, preying on their emotions, that they're going on the journey of a lifetime.
"They are advertising up to 50% off the going retail prices and trying to get people to purchase a package that will never materialise."
He said the crime was often under reported because of embarrassment, but also "because it's a religious duty, people often feel that it's an act of God when this happens".
"We try and show them is it's not an act of God when somebody rips you off," he added.
One man from Bolton said he had been conned out of almost £9,000 last year, along with 15 others, after booking online and discovering that the pilgrimage never materialised and the firm stopped taking his calls.
"I felt very distraught and upset. It really does destroy your life to be honest," said the man, who did not want to be identified.
He urged other victims to report the crime, adding: "People are quite susceptible to be conned because it's something spiritual, something religious".
The Council of British Hajjis advised people to make sure travel firms were accredited by industry body Atol (Air Travel Organisers' Licensing) and recognised by the Saudi authorities.