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7 ON YOUR SIDE: Dozens say travel agent ran off with $40K in cash of dream trip money

Meraj Mohammad (ABC7 Screengrab)

A pilgrimage to Mecca is considered the journey of a lifetime for many Muslims, a dream come true.

But two dozen people in Northern Virginia, who paid cash for pricey packages to the holy city, are facing a nightmare.

“The counter guy said you don’t have a seat,” said Zafar Bhatti, when he and the more than two dozen travelers showed up at Dulles International Airport last Monday.

“Our dream is gone,” he told 7 ON YOUR SIDE. “I’m really disappointed.”

Bhatti paid $1,900 cash for what he thought was a round-trip airline ticket to Saudi Arabia, plus lodging and meals.

Mohammad Anwar Khan paid $7,350 for himself and two family members. What did he receive in return?

“Nothing, except a visa.”

One Alexandria woman was so determined to go anyway, her husband told 7 ON YOUR SIDE, she spent $3,600 on the spot to get on the next flight herself. Others learned that even though their tickets were just one-way, they would go ahead and fund their own way home.

“This is ridiculous, to cheat people, get the money, and leave the people behind,” said Bhatti.

They all say they made cash payments to Meraj Mohammad of Al Noor Travel on Backlick Road in Springfield because he refused to take any other form of payment. One of them sent us a photo of Mohammad, smiling as he counts all the cash. His office is inside Labaik Tours, which had one complaint filed against a company by the same name in Delaware for a similar situation.

“Unfortunately, we have some bad apples in the community and this is really a despicable act, taking advantage of innocent people,” said Mazhar Chughtai, whose uncle lost thousands of dollar in the deal.

This week, posters appeared at a Northern Virginia mosque warning about doing business with Meraj.

“My message to the Muslim community, when you encounter a problem, report it to law enforcement, but call ABC7, because you do an amazing job as well.”

A few of the travelers said they went to Meraj’s home, because it was listed on one of his flyers. They said his family called police, and the group explained to officers that they simply wanted their money back. Some people in the group said they reported the crime to the Virginia Attorney General.

A spokesperson for the Virginia Attorney General wrote to 7 ON YOUR SIDE: “Please encourage victims to contact our office as soon as possible with as much documentation as possible. The best way to do that is through our Consumer Protection section. A complaint can be submitted online here or by calling 800-552-9963. We have seen situations like this before, including the Grade A Travel situation in Hampton Roads which eventually resulted in criminal charges in Isle of Wight county.”

7 ON YOUR SIDE tried to find Meraj Mohammad. We knocked on his office door, wrote him a message on Facebook, and spoke to a family member at his home in Lorton. She told us, Meraj is not trying to scam anyone. She blamed an “airline problem” for travelers not being able to go through with their trips. She also suspected that they would receive refunds when he returns from his travel.

And where is Meraj Mohammad tonight? According to his family, he himself is on that once-in-a-lifetime, holy pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Better Business Bureau offers these tips for protecting yourself against a travel scam:

  • Use reputable websites. Always check out the company at BBB.org, read complaints and customer reviews to see what others are saying about the company. If you’re using services like Airbnb or VRBO to find accommodations, be sure to research the business, and read customer reviews about the specific rentals you’re considering.
  • Get details about your trip in writing. Before providing any form of payment, get everything in writing, especially verbal agreements. Review all terms and conditions, taxes and fees, and cancellation policies. Confirm all reservations, total cost, flights, hotel reservations, cancellation policies, as well as any restrictions that may apply.
  • Use a credit card as payment. Paying by credit card offers additional protection should something go wrong, or if you need to dispute a charge. Never send a wire transfer or prepaid money card, as these types of payments are difficult to track, and make it impossible to get your money back.
  • Consider purchasing travel insurance. Travel insurance is designed to cover such things as trip cancellations due to medical emergencies. There are different levels of coverage, based on what type of plan you purchase. Always read the fine print to see what’s covered and what is not.
  • Use caution when considering deals. If a deal or package seems to offer a lot for a very low price, be wary. Watch out for phone calls, emails, faxes and mail claiming that you’ve “won a trip.” It’s easy for scammers to extend phony offers, but the vast majority of "free trips" them leave hopeful travelers in limbo – with less money. Be wary of “free trip offers” being shared -- or going viral -- on social media platforms like Facebook. Sometimes these posts are tricks to capture your personal information, and will fail to send you on a vacation.

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