Monday, 7 November 2011

Tourist Scams: A Reality of International Travel

On my first trip to Istanbul I fell victim  to a scam that cost me a couple Euro and a bit of  pride. It's unfortunate but tourist are usually walking targets and I tend to believe that black female solo travelers are even bigger marks. I was less anxious about this trip because I was accompanied by my not-so-little little brother. Although he is five years younger, he towers over me and most mere mortals. I figured I would be pretty safe with him by my side. With all the excitement of planning his first trip to Europe I forgot many of my pre-travel rituals including googling “common scams Istanbul” and I wasn't prepared.

It was a long day, my brother and I walked for ages from the new to the old part of the city. It wasn't an easy stroll, Istanbul has steep hills and many of the narrow cobblestone streets were treacherous due to active construction. We trekked under the hot sun making stops at the Spice Market, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, Sultanahment Square and the Blue Mosque. Aside from the pushy carpet salesmens, the Turkish people on a whole were friendly and receptive to us. We were quite the spectacle, people assumed my brother was a basketball player and I was a celebrity: Turkish children waved and stared, we were stopped multiple times by people asking for photos, and random folks shouted "greetings" at us. 
Where are you from? ...We love America!!.... Barack and Michelle..... Jay-z and Beyonce
It had been a great day, just exhausting.

When we finally arrived at the labyrith like Grand Bazaar, we were overwhelmed and decided to skip it.  Heading back to our hotel near Taksim Square, I had no desire to figure out the public transportation system and walking was no longer an option. I saw a cab and we got in. My first mistake was not asking the driver how much it would cost to get us to our hotel. He had a meter and his identification was displayed and in my tired state this was enough for me. I became suspicious of the driver when he went the wrong way at a major intersection. I called him on it and he used the excuse that it was a bad time of day so he had to go another route. I was irritated after a few minutes of joy riding and demanded that he let us out. He protested and then started going the right direction.

Once at the hotel the meter read 32 TL. I knew he took the piss while driving so I only  paid him 35 TL, and then reached for the door. He told me that I owed him more and held up two bills, a ten and a five.  I looked in my wallet, confused, flustered and doubting myself. I didn't say how much I handed him aloud, a habit I practice in any cab, in any city and my brother wasn't paying attention. I had no recourse except to give the dodgy driver 20 Lira. I later realized that he must have hid the 20 Lira note. I handed him the money and when I turned my head to go for the door, he tucked it away. I was even more upset when I found out that the fair should have been closer to 15 Lira.

My brother escaped getting scammed later that evening while exploring the city on his own. A friendly local started a conversation with him while he was having a drink. The man offered to show him some great spots in Istanbul, starting with a place around the corner that his friend owned. He may have taken him up on the offer if he hadn't received a head ups the night before from West Point students on Spring Break. They gave him the low-down on the scams that target male travelers. Being invited out by a seemingly nice guy who takes you somewhere to get charged 1,000 USD for two beers is one of the most notorious and dangerous scams in Istanbul. If you refuse to pay you get roughed up by “management”.

Scams are by no means exclusive to Istanbul but they are a reality of international travel, especially in larger cities. Shady taxi cab drivers, crooked con men, nimble pick pockets; there are often opportunist looking to exploit the trusting nature of people. The most useful weapon against a scam artist is an educated tourist who has their guard up. Before going abroad, do your research on both the good and bad of your destination city. Safe Journey!

Be sure to follow me on twitter @nicolenewblack


  1. Great post! I was lucky when we first arrived in Istanbul, our hotel manager warned us about the taxi scam and told us how much a taxi ride should cost from certain parts of town to the hotel. One thing that I learned from Russia was to never get into a car without haggling for the price first. Other than feeling that I paid too much for some pomegranate juice I think I managed to escape scam free (I’m leaving my carpet buying experience out of this :P )

  2. @digitalcosmonaut i swear i usually do such things smarter but i was tired. tripping over sacred cats and stubbing your toe on concrete can make you lose your common sense LOL. glad you had a great time. we will have to talk about carpet buying over a beer or a burger :)

  3. Excellent article! Having been scammed, it is the worst feeling to hand over cash to an individual when you really want to punch the SOB in the face.

    Earlier this year, an employee of a Latin American air carrier extorted cash out of me over what was allegedly "overweight luggage" - I was at a small airport, more accurately an airstrip.

    The employee behind the counter was the only agent of the air carrier. I knew I wasn't overweight and when he refused to take a credit card despite a functioning "credomatic" machine on the counter, I knew I was being taken. I protested - I even exchanged words in Espanol.

    A catch-22, do I pay the cash? Do I leave and find ground transport? In the end I forked over the cash - I was gringoed.

    Fortunately, I demanded a cash receipt, so "I could be re-reimbursed by my employer" -- when the receipt lacked the air carrier name I demanded a receipt that did, "otherwise my employer would question reimbursement request." :-p I left with cash receipt in hand stamped with the airline name and employee ID.

    Upon arrival, I visit a regional sales office. The supervisor I spoke to, clearly embarrassed when I showed her the receipt & photos I took. She explains they have "strict policy" to not accept cash for this reason, but strangely the required signage was missing from the wall at my origin.

    I complained; loudly, yet politely. I had a couple of candid, honest conversations with locals about what happened. No one expected what would happen next.

    A cash refund, in USD, along with an apology, was couriered up from the air carrier's HQ the next morning.

    The employee who gringoed me, fired.

    While familiar with the local scams, a quick google would have given me the heads up on this one. Thankfully, this one ended well.

  4. @steve
    its amazing what google can do, if i just did it before i left as well, i would have save me some money and frustration. its such a hassle. at the end of the day i suppose that person needed it more than i did.

  5. I'm visiting Istanbul now (from USA), staying in Taksim Square! I love this town. I'm not really experiencing any of the "oooh Beyonce" stuff, but we did get scammed. I'm traveling with my Brazilian female friend and a tall white male friend, so maybe things are different for us. We haven't taken taxis at all. Our two scams were on dinner at the Grand Bazaar (we forgot to look at the prices on the menu and our total came out to 128 lira though we don't know how), and we went to a museum to see a live Whirling Dervishes show, to get charged 5 lira a piece to get in, although the museum was closed! Nobody told us it was closed.

    I think it's impossible to be able to look out for all of the scams, but it's good to think twice about it before traveling, for sure. Great blog!

  6. Great post! The same kind of taxi fare thing happened to me when I was a 20-year-old in Santiago, Chile. The guy actually had the nerve to try it on me 2 times! I fell for it the first time, but he couldn't trick me the 2nd time.

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