Page last updated at 13:43 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 14:43 UK

Police hunt bogus faith healers

By Mark Daly
BBC Scotland investigations correspondent

Police have launched a hunt for a bogus spiritual healer who conned £10,000 out of a desperate family man.

Ali Shah
Ali Shah is said to have been part of a gang preying on the vulnerable

Following a recent BBC Scotland investigation, Leicestershire Constabulary has released a picture of the alleged fraudster at the centre of the scam.

Posing as a holy man, Ali Shah, also known as Khalid Rafique or Shaheed Ikram, is alleged to have been part of a gang preying on those facing hardship or health trouble in Britain's Asian community by falsely promising to solve their problems in return for vast sums of cash.

The BBC was contacted last year by one of Shah's victims, a Glasgow taxi driver called Mohammed, who told how he fell for the scam after seeing an advert in his daily newspaper.

Mohammed said: "I had a problem, a family problem, and I saw the advert for this spiritual healer. It said he could solve any problem within three days."

All Mohammed had to do was send some personal items, including a lock of hair, a toenail and £130 in cash, by recorded delivery to a PO Box.

Leicestershire Constabulary said the force believed there were more victims, and urged them to come forward

During a six-month period, Shah, under the guise "Haji Imam", or holy man, persuaded Mohammed to hand over more than £10,000.

Muslim leaders have said this type of "black magic" fraud is widespread.

Adverts for faith healers can be found in every Asian newspaper or glossy magazine.

It is an industry which is condemned by mainstream religions, including Islam, but is thriving nonetheless.

When Mohammed realised he had been conned, the so-called holy man turned nasty, and threatened him.

He recalled: "Haji Imam said to me, 'I know you are a taxi driver, if you don't stop phoning me I can make an accident for you.' I was scared."

We traced the PO Box to Leicester, where a Trading Standards spokesman said it was impossible to estimate the scale of the problem, because people were often too embarrassed or scared to come forward.

An advert for a 'spiritual healer'
Many Asian publications advertise spiritual healers

However, the BBC learned that Haji Imam was receiving packages almost every day to his PO Box.

BBC Scotland mounted a sting operation and enlisted the help of an Urdu-speaking colleague.

Armed with a completely made up scenario about her failure to conceive a male child, she called him up and soon he was offering to solve her imaginary infertility problem - for £480.

We sent him nothing, but traced the scam to two addresses in Leicester that he was using to channel the money through.

When the BBC turned up there was no-one home, but I managed to speak to him on the phone and he denied being a conman.

We handed our dossier to the police, but Shah has since gone missing.

A spokesman for Leicestershire Constabulary said the force believed there were more victims, and urged them to come forward.

Shah has links in Birmingham and London, but may have fled abroad.

Two men have already been arrested in connection with the inquiry and released on police bail pending further inquiries.

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