Mecca-bound Muslims jilted by travel agency

November 2, 2011 (CHICAGO)

The faithful make their way to Mecca, a procession that millions of Muslims have walked in a ritual of shared sacrifice dating back thousands of years.

Rukhsana Imtiaz, of Brownstown, Mich., was supposed to be in the middle of the pilgrimage Wednesday night with her husband.

"Going for Hajj is a lifetime decision," Imtiaz said. "We searched the internet and we found this website and everything was very promising, very nice, so we just went ahead and booked our package through this agent."

They and several hundred other Islamic faithful from across the country, had made arrangements with VIP Travel Services, whose website has Hajj-2011 on the front page and proclaims it is "a company you can trust."

VIP packages offered at almost $4,000 per person. Economy travel at almost $3,000 listed as sold out.

Imtiaz said she and her husband paid $5,000 each and set up care for their three children.

"We try to teach them that we're Muslims and we live in a free country and now they're looking at their mom and dad and their fellow Muslims have been cheated by their own fellow Muslim," Imtiaz said. "It's embarrassing."

ABC7 traced VIP Travel to a North Side strip mall but found it shuttered, the door locked and the office empty.

Then the wife of the travel agency owner showed up and invited the I-Team inside to speak with her husband on the telephone. Rashid Faridi told Chuck Goudie that the necessary visa's were not issued for 272 of his Hajj travelers.

GOUDIE: "What's going to happen to the money paid by the 272 people?"

FARIDI: "Right. We are trying to do that..."

Faridi was on the phone because he had just wrapped up a meeting in New York with some of the jilted Hajj customers, who have now posted their meeting video on You Tube.

The marooned Muslim worshippers have also started a website that accuses VIP Travel of running a "Hajj scam."

"I think he was in over his head," said former VIP Travel employee Ayub Rangoonwala

Rangoonwala said the travel agency did not intend to cheat anyone but that the owner promised more visas then he obtained.

"When we weren't getting the visas and it was becoming frustrating and customers were becoming inpatient and kept on asking the same questions," Rangoonwala said. "I was advised not to answer my phone, but because I wanted to pass along as much information as I could to the customer I would pick up my phone and if he would see that he would get upset and angry and yell for no apparent reason."

The Saudi embassy in Washington has accredited about a dozen travel agencies across the country. On Wednesday, the Saudi information director said, "VIP Travel is not an approved Hajj travel agency. All travel agencies wishing to engage in Hajj travel, must comply with Saudi rules and be approved by the Ministry of Hajj. Vip Travel is not. The embassy became aware of VIP Travel after the consulate section received numerous complaints about VIP Travel."

"I don't know if there's a black market or if he was buying them through a wholesaler, if there is an authorized wholesaler," Rangoonwala said.

Faridi told ABC7 that some visas were being sold for up to $2,000 each even though it is illegal to buy Hajj visas at all according to Saudi officials.

"It's because of them that this is happening," Imtiaz said. "If they hadn't put such strict rules on how to get a visa, this would not be happening. If there was not agents involved in getting those visas I don't think we'd have a problem or anything like that."

Most of those who didn't receive visas have had their passports returned to them.

Getting their money back is another thing.

The airfare, hotels and ground transportation were all prepaid.

According to an email Faridi sent to the I-Team, he claimed to be in Saudi Arabia Wednesday night trying to retrieve the funds.

But his email also said, "We are in big trouble."


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