A Brooklyn, New York, travel agent was arraigned Thursday on charges of stealing and pocketing more than $350,000 from dozens of Pakistani immigrants who believed they had booked airline tickets and trip packages for Muslim religious pilgrimages.
Junaid Mirza, 50, pleaded not guilty to a 31-count indictment, which included charges of first-degree scheme to defraud, second-degree money laundering, and grand larceny, among others. State Supreme Court Justice Matthew Sciarrino set bail at $200,000 bond or $75,000 cash, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office told NBC News. It wasn't immediately clear if Mirza posted bail.
A phone message left Thursday evening with his attorney, Mitch Salaway, was not returned.
Between July 2011 and September 2015, Mirza allegedly took out advertisements in Urdu-language newspapers, like the Pakistan Post and Urdu Times, and in pamphlets distributed in mosques across multiple states that offered discounted trips and tickets, the district attorney said. To gain the trust of some customers, Mirza spoke in Urdu and allegedly made Muslim religious references, according to the indictment.
The travel agencies Mirza owned and operated, Pearl USA Travel, Inc. and Travel Treat, sold two types of pilgrimage packages, prosecutors allege. The first was for Hajj, an annual trip to Mecca required of all Muslims who can afford and physically take it. The second was for Umrah, which is not mandatory and can be taken any time of the year. The packages, the indictment said, included roundtrip airfare, hotels, ground transportation in Mecca, and visas — a Saudi Arabian government requirement.
But after receiving cash payments of more than $6,000 a person for Hajj pilgrimages, "Mirza would employ dilatory tactics and gave excuses for why he was unable to obtain the promised visas," according to the indictment. Some found out they wouldn't be able to travel to Saudi Arabia just days before they were to begin their Hajj, and Mirza did not provide refunds when customers requested them, the indictment alleges.
"Many of the victims were hard-working Pakistani immigrants who trusted the defendant and were cheated out of a lifelong dream of taking a pilgrimage to Mecca," Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson said in a statement.
In addition to the Hajj and Umrah packages, Mirza allegedly promised low airfares if customers paid by cash or check, which was deposited the same day, the district attorney said, adding that customers were sometimes handed receipts and printouts passed off as tickets.
The airline tickets, however, were never given to customers, prosecutors said.
Mirza is also accused of failing to pay airlines and airline ticket wholesalers for bookings, of purchasing only one-way tickets to Pakistan when customers paid for round-trip airfare, and of convincing airline ticket wholesalers to extend him credit without having any intention of paying them back, according to the indictment.
Some of Mirza's customers — including taxi and Uber drivers, home health aides, and postal workers — learned their tickets had not been purchased only after calling the airlines to change a seat number or request a special meal, the district attorney said. Some found out when they got to the airport.
One bride and her mother even wound up missing part of her wedding celebration in Pakistan, the district attorney's office said. And a parent traveling alone with three young children was marooned at an airport in Pakistan after learning that a return flight had never been purchased, prosecutors said.
Some customers called Mirza after realizing their tickets were just printouts of a passenger name record, the indictment alleges, but Mirza did not answer the phone or return messages. Sometimes he allegedly told customers he was sick or that a family member was ill or had died, prosecutors allege. And when a refund was issued, multiple undated checks were given to customers that would often bounce, the indictment said.
Overall, at least 25 customers lost between $1,075 and $14,000 each, the district attorney's office said. Mirza faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
"We will now vindicate their rights and make sure that the defendant goes to prison for stealing their money and destroying their dreams," Thompson said.