Hajj travel agent charged with cheating customers out of $525,000

ABC7 I-Team Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- A Chicago travel agent who was exposed by the ABC7 I-Team in 2011 was arrested Thursday on a new federal fraud charge for allegedly cheating at least 50 customers of approximately $525,000.

Rashid Minhas, 42, is charged with misrepresenting his ability to sell travel packages for the Muslim Hajj that included the visa required to enter Saudi Arabia.

Minhas was charged with mail fraud in a criminal complaint that was filed on Wednesday in U.S. District Court. The federal complaint was unsealed Thursday morning following his arrest, without incident, at his North Side Chicago home. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan ordered him held until a detention hearing next Tuesday, as prosecutors argued that he committed fraud while he was free on bond the past year.

Agents also searched his business, Light Star Hajj Group, located at 5801 Northwest Hwy., Chicago, according to federal investigators. Mr. Minhas previously operated a travel agency in Chicago called City Travel & Tours.

"He never told us there have been any issues with getting a visa," said Farzana, an alleged victim. "He did send us a flight schedule, but our passport, our tracking number wasn't even uploaded. That's the time we got concerned and tried to contact him."

From this disappointed Hajj pilgrim in Southern California to distraught Muslims in Chicago's south suburbs, bitterness abounds when it comes to Minhas.

Farzana, who asks that the I-Team only use her first name, says she had no idea that Minhas was out of bond for allegedly doing the very same thing to other Muslim faithfuls in 2009.

Minhas leaves a long trail of customers who say they were jilted, including some who met with him in New York in 2011.

This letter from Minhas to customers who had their Hajj trips cancelled a few weeks ago blames it on God:

"We understand how your heart is feeling," he wrote, "but if Allah doesn't want to invite you, than no one can take you to Mecca/Medina."

A press release from the U.S. Attorney in Chicago states that "between March and November 2014, Minhas falsely represented that Hajj travel packages for September and October of this year included required Saudi Arabia entry visas. Minhas allegedly knew that Light Star Hajj was not authorized by Saudi Arabia to obtain visas and that he did not intend to obtain the required Hajj visas. He sold travel deals to at least 50 customers and deposited approximately $525,000 he collected into Light Star's bank accounts, and then commingled those funds with other deposits and used the money to make partial refunds to customers, to transfer funds to Pakistan, and to pay personal expenses, the complaint alleges."

The Hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. In the Muslim faith, it is considered a mandatory, once-per-lifetime commitment. This year, the Hajj pilgrimage was from Oct. 2-7, and each year, approximately two million pilgrims attend the Hajj, prosecutors said.

"It's essentially a religious, once in a lifetime thing for any Muslim and I don't know if I'll be able to perform one next year if I'm alive," Farzana said.

The complaint states that agents reviewed Light Star's bank records and determined that approximately $525,000 was deposited this year from the sale of Hajj travel packages. An additional $586,000 was deposited from other sources, including the sale of Umrah travel packages, cash deposits and transfers. Agents determined that approximately $745,000 was spent on expenditures that were not related to Hajj travel packages, including $159,000 in checks to cash, $339,000 in transfers to individuals in Pakistan, approximately $49,000 in checks to Minhas' former wife, and other expenses.

Despite Minhas' second arrest in a year on similar fraud charges, his travel agency website is currently advertising for next year's trips to Mecca. Thursday in court he claimed to be broke, and now has a court-appointed lawyer.
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