THOUSANDS of East Lancashire Muslims planning pilgrimages to the Mecca have been warned about bogus packages.
It follows Trading Standards officers finding that 23 agents in Blackburn with Darwen, Hyndburn, Burnley and Pendle failed to meet professional standards.
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They are now stepping up investigations into the market for October Hajj and Umrah travel schemes across the county in a bid to root out scams.
The problems discovered ranged from unprofessional practices, through to agents selling schemes for which they lacked proper visas and approvals, to potential frauds.
Lancashire County Council officials working with the police visited 22 online and high street agents following concerns about packages to visit holy sites in Saudi Arabia.
Just six, all in Preston, met with their approval with the other 16 in Hyndburn, Burnley and Pendle now subject to further investigations which could lead to prosecution.
Similar checks in Blackburn with Darwen led to formal action being taken against one trader and continuing inquiries into six others.
Problems exposed include: * websites taking deposits while advertising bogus addresses; * online agencies providing inadequate contact details; * paying for a 5-star hotel and ending up with a poor quality, cramped rooms; * lack of proper visas and accreditation; * agents selling packages for which they have not secured accreditation and visas through approved organisers; * flight tickets and visas not arriving; and * operators making last-minute changes to flights.
In the worst cases, scam tour operators have disappeared with thousands of pounds of pilgrims' money, trading standards bosses said.
In June 2003, Mohammed Adris, of Blackburn Road, Accrington, was convicted at Burnley Crown Court of stealing £150,000 from 170 pilgrims for bogus trips.
More than 3,000 East Lancashire residents join the 25,000 UK pilgrims to the Saudi Arabian Holy City every year.
Pendle Labour councillor Mohammed Iqbal said: “These people are despicable, exploiting people’s religious enthusiasm for gain.”
Lancashire Council Mosque chairman Abdul Hamid Qureshi said: “It is particularly horrifying that some Muslims would do this to people trying to fulfil their once in a life-time duty to make these pilgrimages.
“This has been a problem in the past and I am disturbed that it is re-appearing.”
Altaf Arif, who runs Arif Hajj and Umrah Service in Brierfield is one 80 Mannazams, or organisers, approved by the Saudi Arabian government which takes 450 pilgrims a year.
He said: “People should check before they book that they are doing so though a Mannazam.”
Hyndburn Mayor Munsif Dad said: “I am delighted action is being taken. This is a real and shocking problem.”
Burnley MP Gordon Birtwistle said: “I am appalled. It is shocking people can exploit people religious enthusiasm like this.”
Blackburn MP Jack Straw said: “People should always be on their guard.”
The visits were part of a national project to ensure that all pilgrimages booked are correctly described, and that travellers' money is safe if things go wrong.
County public protection boss Janice Hanson said: "Every Muslim is expected to perform at least one Hajj or Umrah pilgrimage during their lifetime if they are physically and financially able. With trips costing thousands, it's big business.
“We have found that a lot of the pilgrimages are sold through unprotected agents and without proper documentation, leaving travellers vulnerable to huge financial losses if their hotel bookings are not available or they are stranded abroad