Travel agent wants name cleared, but new accusers emerge

Meraj Mohammed tried to defend himself to 7 On Your Side. (ABC7)

“I don’t know who gave you the bad picture about me, but it’s lies.”

That’s how Meraj Mohammed defended himself to 7 On Your Side after our first investigation into his alleged travel practices in 2017. Since 2014, travelers have accused him of taking thousands of dollars in cash for pilgrimages to Mecca, then canceling or rescheduling their flights at a higher cost, with partial or no refunds given.

“I’m not a thief and I’m not a stealer,” said Meraj. “I’m giving to the community the lower price so people can worship and come back with me.”

In May of 2018, Meraj called 7 On Your Side, urging us to clear his name, blaming the airlines for a “mishap” when twenty-six passengers did not have seats on the flight to Saudi Arabia that he promised. Five days after his phone call, it happened again.

Home video shows Meraj driving a group of five Muslim women, elderly and with limited mobility, from Northern Virginia to JFK airport in New York to catch a flight to Saudi Arabia. When they arrived around 3 p.m., he claimed they missed their flight, scheduled to depart around 5 p.m. The women were taken to a local mosque, then left for hours on a New York City street corner. One family drove up to New York to pick up their mother in darkness. Others rode back home with Meraj.

The women had paid thousands of dollars in cash to Meraj for the trip of a lifetime, a religious obligation and dream journey for devout Muslims. Meraj allegedly told them, if they paid an additional $550 in cash, he would book them on a new flight. Some of the women chose that option. Not Shafiqa Areef’s mother.

“It’s wrong, it’s sick, and it’s disgusting especially in the month of Ramadan,” Areef told 7 On Your Side.

Areef contacted Saudi Airlines after the debacle and was given documentation that the reservation was mysteriously suspended, the passengers considered no-shows, and a full refund given, presumably to Meraj. When Areef confronted him about getting the cash back, she says he turned violent.

“He said the money is gone, poof. He said it just like that,” said Areef, who talked to Meraj on the patio of his home, her sister by her side. “It got confrontational. His family had to hold him back from attacking me. How is he not in jail?” Her sister verified the story.

Areef called Fairfax County Police and filed a report, as have half a dozen other irate customers.

“I’m very upset, very sad. I’m feeling very sad.”

Mohammad Khan, his wife and daughter, all saddened after paying thousands of dollars in cash to Meraj, who promised a refund after their 2017 trip was scrubbed at Dulles airport. Khan claims a Saudi Airline agent told him, “Where did you get this ticket? Did you get from Meraj? Oh, he never shows up.”

That was the case for the Malik family in Prince William County in 2014, except worse. Their trips were canceled just before their flights took off, four separate times.

“My clients were very trusting and they were preyed upon,” said Connell Loftus, a Manassas attorney who represented the Malik family.

The family sued Meraj under the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and settled for an undisclosed sum.

Loftus said the family’s daughter gave powerful testimony on the witness stand of the sacrifice her parents made to save the money for the trip, to take time off from work, to bathe and dress appropriately in preparation for the religious journey, only to walk away from the airport empty-handed and broken-hearted every single time.

“Seeing all these individuals show up at the airport, incur costs to get to a holy site,” said Loftus, “it’s really a shame.”

Meraj told 7 On Your Side, it’s always the fault of the travel agencies he contracts with, or the airlines, or international politics, never his.

But for one trip, C&H International in Washington, DC told 7 On Your Side that Meraj “never confirmed the booking by making a deposit on group rates.” Account executive Sameer Islam said, weeks after his first inquiry, once Meraj obtained visas for travelers, it was too late to book with Saudi Airlines, and the flights were sold out. He added, “If you buy the tickets last minute, prices are quite high.”

As to Meraj’s confusion as to why anyone would paint an unflattering picture of him? We explained: Consumers call 7 On Your Side when money has been taken. And many of these travelers feel like their money was stolen.

“No, that’s not true,” said Meraj. He claims to have repaid nearly all of them, with no intent to commit fraud. “I follow in the footsteps of Jesus, Moses, and the prophet Muhammad. None of them teach you can do that.”

Meraj has his defenders too. Saba Ahmed, who told 7 On Your Side that Meraj successfully helped her parents get visas to Saudi Arabia and arrange a trip for them, said even though the group of women missed their first flight out of New York in May, Meraj did eventually take them, with the exception of Shafiqa Areef’s mother who refused to go.

Ahmed herself paid $5,000 to buy the women she didn't know a one-way tickets to Medina, Saudi Arabia.

Ahmed is the president of the Republican Muslim Coalition in D.C. While she has never met Meraj in person, she said, “I gave the money for those elderly women as I felt bad that they missed their flights and would lose the opportunity to perform Umrah pilgrimage during Ramadan.” She considered it charitable giving for the year and did not hold Meraj responsible for the misadventure.

RELATED, June 16, 2017: Dozens say travel agent ran off with $40K in cash of dream trip money

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