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The Root of All Evil

A travel agency has scammed millions of dollars from Muslims who wanted to visit Mecca. Victims are now clamouring for reimbursement.

With religion being compulsory in Indonesia and Islam being predominant, there is no shortage of scammers trying to rip off devout Muslims. The biggest scam in recent weeks concerns a travel agency that fleeced people seeking to perform the umrah – the minor Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Corruption often starts at the top. The Religious Affairs Ministry has been hit by numerous scandals over the past decade, from taking bribes for the awarding of contracts to print Korans to misusing Hajj funds. Despite its poor record, the ministry retains a monopoly on Hajj pilgrimages, which have a fixed price of Rp.34.89 million (US$2,610) per person. There is a waiting list of about 17 years if you can’t afford to pay to jump the queue.

Indonesia has an annual quota of 211,000 Hajj pilgrims for the event that takes place during the final month of the Islamic calendar. Devout Muslims are supposed to undertake the Hajj at least once in their lives, if they can afford it.

Given the long waiting time, many Indonesian Muslims instead opt to perform the umrah, which can be undertaken at any time. Any travel agent can offer umrah services, although they are supposed to gain permission from the Religious Affairs Ministry. Rather than just a trip to Mecca, umrah packages may also take in tourist sites in Turkey, Jordan and Egypt.

First Anugerah Karya Wisata, better known as First Travel agency, was founded in 2009 and in 2011 started selling umrah holidays. It dispatched its first pilgrims in 2012, although it did not obtain an umrah permit until 2016. The company offered numerous umrah packages, the cheapest being a promotional deal for Rp.14.3 million (US$1,070).

Most customers opted for this bargain package, which had a waiting period of up to a year. Many departures were delayed interminably. When customers began complaining on social media, the company dismissed their complaints as a ‘hoax’ and reported them to police in March for defamation. When more victims demanded refunds, some of the company’s staff reported the owners to police.

According to police, about 72,000 people had paid First Travel for umrah packages, but only 14,000 of them had departed, leaving 58,000 customers ripped off. Police have set up a special hotline for victims. As of August 21, more than 1,200 had come forward.

The scam netted First Travel an estimated Rp.550 billion (US$41 million), although police found only Rp.1.3 million (US$97) and Rp1.5 million left in its two main bank accounts. Police said the company and its owners have debts of about Rp.104 billion (US$7.78 million), including an Rp.80 billion (US$6 million) loan, as well as Rp.24 billion (US$1.8 million) owed to hotels in Mecca and Medina, where its customers stayed over 2015 to 2017.

Police said the company and its owners have debts of about Rp.104 billion (US$7.78 million), including an Rp.80 billion (US$6 million) loan, as well as Rp.24 billion (US$1.8 million) owed to hotels in Mecca and Medina, where its customers stayed over 2015 to 2017.

The Religious Affairs Ministry on August 1 revoked First Travel’s umrah permit. On August 9, police arrested the company’s owner Anniesa Hasibuan and her husband Andika Surachman, the president director. Later, they arrested Anniesa’s sister Siti Nuraidah ‘Kiki’ Hasibuan, who was a commissioner and financial director of the company. Assets were seized from all three, who now face fraud charges. Kiki’s brother Ivan, who is also a commissioner in the company, has been questioned by police.

The Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (PPATK) is tracing First Travel’s assets and has checked dozens of bank accounts to ascertain whether money was laundered. PPATK head Kiagus Ahmad Badaruddin said his agency would find out what happened to the ‘trillions of rupiah’ that used to be in the accounts of the company’s owners. He said at least 30 percent of the umrah funds had been used to purchase personal assets, such as houses, cars and ‘other things.’ National Police Criminal Investigation chief Herry Rudolf Nahak said many of the assets were tied up as collateral or had been mortgaged or pawned.

Anniesa, 31, had in recent years started a fashion design business and her garments were modelled at fashion shows in Jakarta, London and New York. Some Muslim fashionistas criticized her Islamic clothing lines as being too sexy. Prior to setting up First Travel, Anniesa and her husband had sold hamburgers and mobile phone credit vouchers.

Washing its hands

Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin rejected claims his ministry should provide refunds to the victims simply because it had licensed First Travel to offer umrah packages. He said the company must either reimburse payments or pay other travel agents to take its customers abroad. He promised the government would intensify its monitoring of umrah travel agents.

Responding to calls for the government to set a base price for umrah packages, the minister said the possibility was being considered to prevent agents from ensnaring customers with cheap prices.

One of the scam’s victims is Pramana Syamsul Ikbar, a state prosecutor. He denied reports that suggested First Travel’s owners had been running a pyramid scheme or an investment business. If there had been a ponzi or pyramid scheme, he explained, police and the government could blame the victims for making unwise investments.

Pramana said the promotional price set by First Travel was not implausibly low because the trips were not scheduled for peak season and there was a one-year waiting period. “We bought services and First Travel broke its promises and embezzled the pilgrims’ money. We did not do business or invest in First Travel,” he was quoted as saying by detikcom online news portal.

He said that under prevailing laws and regulations, umrah travel agents must be licensed and must provide a bank guarantee to the Religious Affairs Ministry. He said the ministry had turned a blind eye to First Travel’s illegal actions, so it should reimburse the victims, rather than trying to wash its hands of the matter.

Criminologist Ronny Nitibaskara said the First Travel case was a case of ‘ordinary people’ who devised a get-rich-quick scam that enabled them to become jetsetters. The company’s website was hacked last week and replaced with a photo of victims demanding reimbursement. As long as religious obligations are tainted by the lure of easy profits, such cases will likely continue.

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.


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