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.

Indonesia Expat - - Content Page - BY KEN­NETH YEUNG

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.

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 oneyear 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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