Scam artist targets Vermont Muslims

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ESSEX, Vt. (AP) – Taysir Al-Khatib thought the prayers of himself and fellow members of the Islamic Society of Vermont were being answered. The group would be able to hire a full-time imam and start a religious school.

Al-Khatib, the society’s treasurer, got a call from a man who identified himself as a Saudi banker. The man said he wanted to help the Islamic Society with those projects and in the opening of a cemetery.

But within days, Al-Khatib realized he was out $2,200 and the purported benefactor was nowhere to be found.

The FBI says Al-Khatib had been targeted by Mohammed Mustafa Agbareia, a confidence man who has scammed Muslims across the country by preying on their religious teaching that they have a duty to help travelers in need.

Agbareia, whose age and real nationality the FBI has not released, told Al-Khatib of his plans to visit Vermont. Days later Agbareia called again to say he was stranded in Toronto because the bags containing his extra money had been lost on the trip from Saudi Arabia.

“He presented himself like you could believe him,” Al-Khatib said. “This guy is a real professional.” He said Agbareia seemed reluctant to ask for help, but Al-Khatib told him, “You are a Muslim brother. Please ask me. I’d like to help you out.” He offered to buy tickets to Burlington with a credit card.

Agbareia said the travel agency he was dealing with in Toronto only took cash. Al-Khatib ended up spending $200 to wire $2,000 to Agbareia.

Al-Khatib then learned that Agbareia’s flight had been canceled. Later the same day, Agbareia called again, telling Al-Khatib that he would try to reschedule his visit. Al-Khatib never heard from him again. Agbareia recently pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in federal court in Mobile, Ala.

After his experience of being fleeced, Al-Khatib alerted local and federal authorities, his mosque and a national Islamic group in Washington. Agbareia tried to run the same scam on other members of the Vermont society, but, warned in advance, they didn’t fall for it.

Al-Khatib said his faith leads him still to feel good about the help he offered. “We still get the benefit,” he said, “at least from God.”

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