Friday, November 23, 2007

Istanbul: Scams

It's no secret that Istanbul is full of scam artists, especially in
the old town/museum districts. It's a city of 16 million people with
huge wage discrepancies and an endless supply of naive tourists-- and
while the police do their best to keep things orderly, there just
aren't enough of them to babysit every visitor. So while I loved
seeing Istanbul, it's not a good place to just sit around and relax.
It's very difficult to blend in with the locals, so you're constantly
a walking target.

Mostly, Turkish vendors will be unusually forceful in trying to sell
you their goods. They realize that tourists are easily intimidated
into spending money, and are polite enough to easily keep on the line.
If you seem particularly naive, you'll be hassled even more. The
best way to avoid this is as follows:

-If you want to just look at something, don't stop. If you stop, the
storekeeper will come out and hassle you.
-Don't point at anything. If you point, the storekeeper will come out
and hassle you.
-If someone shouts at you, don't acknowledge them.
-If someone asks you a question, don't answer them.
-If someone grabs your arm, shake them off and keep walking.
-If something doesn't add up, just keep walking.
-Don't be afraid of hurting anyone's feelings.

I was physically pulled into booths several times before I realized
how obvious of a target I was, with my backpack, sunglasses, stopping
and looking at everything. Once I wizened up a little bit, going to
the markets was much more pleasant.

But the vendors are only part of the problem. The most famous and
well-orchestrated scams have to do with price disputes. For example,
a girl (or sometimes a couple) will take up a conversation with you,
pretending to be tourists. They'll go to great lengths to show you
that they're "authentic", including taking you out to dinner or buying
you a drink somewhere. At some point, they'll suggest that you go to
this cool local club they found, which will be a ways out of the main
drag (away from the police), and unusually empty inside. You'll buy
one or two drinks, and the bill will come back with something like a
two thousand dollar sum. When you complain, they'll force you to the
nearest ATM to withdraw as much money as you can so you can pay their

Why not just straight up kidnap you? Because this way, it can go down
on paper as being a pricing dispute, which I guess is a lot easier to
defend than a kidnapping.

Some people from my hostel were involved in a similar scam, but they
were able to recognize what was going on before it was too late, so
they escaped on foot back to a more crowded area.

I was fortunate enough not to end up in the middle of any scams. The
nearest I came was when a food vendor offered to give me my sandwich
for free if I came back and bought another one tomorrow. It seems
reasonable enough, since the sandwich was only like 50 cents anyway--
but when it's the only place open in a 100 yard radius, you have to
wonder. I didn't accept (I was leaving the next day anyway), but what
I assume would have happened would be that I'd take the free sandwich,
and as soon as I walked around the corner a "police officer" would
have demanded that I pay a fine of some arbitrary amount because I
stole from the restaurant.

It's really not as bad as I'm making it out to be. The vast majority
of tourists don't end up getting scammed. Nevertheless, you will
enjoy Istanbul a lot more if you can avoid these situations.


Bill said...

I had a friend taken in by one of those scams in Toyko. He was taken to an empty bar by a "friend" of his and was then forced to buy some very very expensive drinks for some more "friends". Be wary!

Aleta said...

Oh man, you said "take you to a cool local club" and I was like OMGHOSTELOMG.

Seriously, I'm like way concerned for you. Seriously.