In September 2014, Virginia resident Shazia K. Farook flew to California to see off her parents who were headed off on the trip of a lifetime— Hajj.
They had suitcases packed and ready in their Southern California home and airline confirmations in their hands. Their passports with visas were ‘in the mail’. Then a packet arrived from the Hajj travel agency, informing them that their visas were not approved. Devastated, Farook’s parents —the Kamals— didn't know what to do. They called her uncle in Chicago who was supposed to leave with them, travelling with the same company.
Unfortunately, the uncle had received the same news about his own visa and was trying to get in touch with their agent, Rashid Minhas of Light Star Hajj Group. Farook’s uncle had chosen the travel package, which at that time looked like quite the deal. The travel agent was not picking up the phone or returning text messages.
A quick trip to the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles revealed that Minhas was not registered as an authorized Hajj agent. The Kamals did not even have electronic reference numbers filed for their names. In short, Minhas had never applied for their visas. When her parents finally reached Minhas and demanded an explanation, the agent became agitated and rudely told them there was nothing he could do, Farook told the Muslim Link.
News media in the Chicago area picked up the story of the man who perpetuated injustice towards the Kamals and 48 others hoping to complete a religious tenet and word spread through the American Muslim community of his arrest and charges of mail fraud of over $500, 000.
Farook and her family think about the warning signs. Minhas had insisted on receiving a money order, which they had sent out right after Ramadan. The materials sent by Minhas’s agency were subpar and unprofessional, says Farook. She gave him the benefit of doubt yet the odd font and folder prophesied things to come.
“If my parents had just shared the information with us before they send the money, we would have Googled him and found out about his previous [illegal activity],” says Farook. Looking back, she says she should have paid closer attention and investigated further on behalf of her aging parents.
Minhas did this before. A Facebook page dedicated to victims of VIP Travels- the agency that Minhas ran before he started Light Star – has dozens of anguished messages from victims of the fraud. Three years ago, ABC news ‘exposed Minhas as he was facing an angry crowd of travel agency clients who had paid thousands of dollars for trips to Mecca that never happened.’
From October 2008 to March 2009, he operated a travel agency by the name of City Travel and Tours. On Nov. 21, 2013, Minhas, who previously went by the name Rashid Faridi, was charged with seven counts of mail and wire fraud, according to a complaint filed in local courts in Chicago. According to Chicago Tribune, the indictment against Minhas alleges that he sold or helped sell about ‘$340,000 in airline tickets that were voided, resulting in losses of $293,000 to Emirates Airlines and others.’
Minhas found a loophole in the electronic payment system for paper airline tickets. He voided tickets “without notifying the customer or the airline and fraudulently retained customers' funds for his personal use."
Hajj Business in America
An estimated twelve to fifteen thousand pilgrims travel every year from America for hajj, with numbers increasing every year. Only 40 agencies in the United States are licensed with the Ministry of Hajj to arrange groups. All other agencies, branches, or partners do business with these authorized agencies directly or indirectly.
“Some people want to save money and go for good deals,” says Maqsood Ibrahim Fareed, of Royal Travels in Houston, TX. He warns about fly by night or ‘boiler room’ operations and random brothers in the masjid who are taking people on hajj.
Dealing with companies from other states can also be an issue as it is harder to assess if the company is legitimate, he says. He mentioned a story of a rogue agent from New York who absconded with half a million dollars from people wanting to make the Hajj trip from Houston.
“[T]he main points are that one must be in good standing with the [Saudi] Hajj Ministry and have a contract with a Hajj/Umrah company within Saudi Arabia,” says Mohammad Aslam of Metro International Travel Inc. The Saudi Embassy requires that travel agents provide the consulate with residence, transportation and general services contracts. According to the Ministry of Hajj this contract must include the name of the organizer, the code given to them by the Ministry of Hajj, and the number of visas they are allowed to get. Prior to the issuance of any hajj visas, they must also provide the consulate with a letter from the Ministry of Hajj office in Makkah. If any of the pieces of the puzzle are missing then a visa can be rejected, often due to the inexperience of a ‘boiler room’ travel agent.
Akila S. and her family were set to go for Hajj in 2014. Akila’s father had seen a flyer in local masjid in Chicago, Ill. The cheaper rates promised a saving for the family of six. They submitted all their paperwork, she says. She reflects on the expense of Hajj and wonders why prices are tripled during the Hajj season. Maqsood from the Texas travel agency says that during Hajj season the cost factors go up in Saudi Arabia for everything from catering to accommodations. His company makes payments to the airlines and hotels 6 to 8 months in advance.
A local imam, who did not have the experience or resources to fulfill the commitments the company had made in their fliers, led her hajj group. The entire group was unable to obtain visas and so never made it for Hajj.
Some pilgrims will arrive in Saudi Arabia to discover the accommodations they booked do not exist, while others will find that their whole trip is in fact a scam. Minhas did manage to send a few travellers to Jeddah but once they were there they were left to fend for themselves. Farid says a legitimate company will have contacts in Saudi Arabia who arrange accommodations, transportation, food and various other support services.
Pilgrims are urged to get everything in writing. “Always get written terms and conditions as this details your contract with the travel company. Make sure your flight details, accommodations and Hajj visa are valid. Establish an auditable paper trail and keep records of financial transactions,” suggests a national awareness campaign on Hajj fraud that ran in the United Kingdom where Hajj fraud is so common that there is a special police division for it.
Don’t send cash or checks to individuals. Most legitimate companies will have facilities with a bank to accept credit or debit cards. Fareed from Royal Travels said that travel agents can accept credit cards for airline tickets but in his experience hotel packages have to be paid by wire transfers by the agent for the whole group.
Marsin Travels Intl. refunded $30,000 to Akila’s family; they are still waiting for the remaining $10,000. “If I don't get my refund then I will file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau,” says Akila S.
“We trust too easily, we think it is Hajj and no one will commit fraud on a Hajji. We can’t be blind and have to do our research,” says Akila S. who looked up the website of the travel group after submitting payment and found it very rudimentary.
“The number of pilgrims performing Hajj each year from around the world is increasing very rapidly. [The] government of Saudi Arabia is trying their best to keep up with the influx. Unfortunately until the planned expansion of Haramain and areas surrounding is completed, it will be difficult to manage these huge numbers,” says Shahzad Ahmad of ZamZam Travel, which is listed on Hajinformation.com, an official web portal for information about authorized Hajj agencies.
“If there is a problem with any arrangement in Saudi Arabia, the authorized agency can contact the Ministry of Hajj for intervention and resolution. Sub-agents or sub-groups are not recognized by the Ministry of Hajj and so cannot deal with the Ministry of Hajj directly. Also, if pilgrims face any trouble with their arrangements, they can hold the authorized agency accountable in front of the Ministry of Hajj. On the other hand, if a sub-group or sub-agency doesn’t deliver on its promises, there is usually not much pilgrims can do.”
Ask for references and a second opinion, says Farook. “As a community, we have to talk about a more efficient method for hajjis—we have to lead to good.”
This year the Saudi Embassy will not enter passport information manually. “You must use a passport reader,” says Ayman Ali. He runs Haj On Soft, a software solution for agents that he says allows submitted passport data, finances, tickets and required paperwork to interface seamlessly with the Ministry of Hajj's requirements. This requires passports to be scannable.“Companies must know which reader is required and how to order it. Some old passports may not be able to be scanned by the reader. Travelers should update themselves about new developments.”
Filing a Complaint
Some Muslims don’t want to file complaints because they want to be able to go to Hajj and think that complaining will flag their names on a list and their visas may be denied in the future. This makes little sense as the Saudi Ministry of Hajj has an easy portal on their website to file complaints to minimize fraud. Hajjratings.com is also a website where Hujjaj write reviews of Hajj companies after their trips.
Others are spiritually abused into silence; scared to commit gheebah (backbiting), scared that they are not practicing sabr (being patient) or that filing a complaint would be tantamount to dishonoring another Muslim. “If someone has been wronged [they] need to speak up because who knows how many Muslims may be defrauded by this process,” says Akila.
It’s a balancing act to keep hujjaj from North America happy. The biggest challenge for legitimate travel agents is the high expectations of pilgrims and how they adapt to foreign rules and culture, say travel agents. “During Hajj many pilgrims expect buses to arrive on time and all the processes involved to happen in a quick and timely fashion. However, there are millions of other pilgrims waiting to be transferred from location to location along with us. Therefore not everything is fast during Hajj and often times we must wait for buses and hotels for hours. This is all apart of the process and some pilgrims find this hard to deal with,” said one travel agent. Some return and file complaints based on these experiences. “We prepare our Hajjis ahead of time and emphasize the need for patience. Most of these logistical setbacks are not in our control, however the bottom line is we perform all the rites and rituals of Hajj as prescribed,” says Aslam, who is a veteran in the field.
“The best experience is du'a received from other Hajjis. If they are satisfied, then I am satisfied. I want to make sure people enjoy their time,” says Aslam of Metro Travel.
This journey of a lifetime should start with du'a and research. As the Prophet recommended: Trust in Allah but tie your camel.