I was wandering alone, taking snaps of the Blue Mosque, when a man asked me to take a photo of him with the mosque in the background using his phone. Being the kind person that I am (haha, yes, I have to insert that), I obliged. I even took a considerable amount of time because the obsessive-compulsive in me wanted it to be perfect. I waited for the crowd behind him to clear up and made sure the light hit him right. Funny how it was all for nothing!
After taking his pic, I returned his phone and bade goodbye, but he had another idea. He started getting friendly, asking me questions about where I was from and how I was liking Istanbul so far. But he asked me something that rang the alarm bells: “Maybe we can tour together. Are you with someone?”
You only ask that question for either of these reasons: you want to screw with me (wink, wink) OR you want to screw me over. And I’m guessing he had the latter in mind (because look at me!). Too bad, he was cute.
I answered I was with someone, which is true, and walked away to meet Vins, my ever reliable blogging partner, by the Sultanahmet Park fountain. He had an interesting story. He said that as he was photographing Hagia Sophia, a man asked him to take a picture with his phone. Then the guy tried to strike a conversation, asked if he was alone, and brought up the idea of them exploring the city together. Vins left immediately. Two super friendly strangers at two places doing the exact same thing? I highly doubt that it’s a coincidence. My bet is they’re part of an elaborate, organized scam.
Istanbul is a great city. But like most great cities, it has its share of bad people trying to take advantage of our being new and naive. Here are five scams to watch out for and how their modi operandi (MO) work.
WHAT'S COVERED IN THIS GUIDE?
1. Taxi Scams (Meter Tampering and Money Switching)
I can explain this to you in detail because we actually fell victim to this. Normally, we would take the tram to get to anywhere, but we were in a big rush that day as I had to attend a dinner. We approached the queue of cabs near the Eminonu Station.
Their goal: Take advantage of you not being familiar with Istanbul’s streets and Turkish bills.
Their usual spots: Touristy areas like Sultanahmet, Eminonu, and Taksim Square.
Their MO: They usually try to pull a three-hit combo: using tampered meter or not using the meter at all, taking long detours, and money switching.
- Not using the meter. Some would insist on not using the meter. Don’t let them.
- Using tampered meter. The cab we hired from Eminonu, used a meter that moved a lot more quickly than usual. A cab ride from Sultanahmet to Beşiktaş should be just around TRY 20. Ours made it past TRY 100. A fellow traveler whom we had talk to the day after had the same experience, noting how the meter was so fast. Other drivers also defend themselves by saying that evening rates are different. Don’t believe it. There used to be a difference, but it has been abolished.
- Taking unnecessary detours. We were surprised that the taxi driver took the long way to get to our hotel in Beşiktaş. It was already our third day in the city and we were already familiar with the area. He used terrible traffic as an excuse. He then took us around, taking unnecessary turns.
- Switching money. Some drivers would switch your bills when it’s time to pay. When you give him a TRY50 note, he would complain that you had given him a TRY5 note. They do it so fast you won’t even notice. Don’t fall for this. He tried to pull this on us, too.
HOW TO AVOID
- Always insist on using the meter. If they won’t budge, find another cab.
- Seek assistance from hotel staff. If you stay at a hotel or hostel, ask the reception to call a cab for you.
- Pretend you’ve been in Istanbul a long time. Although it doesn’t hold true all the time, one of a good sign that your driver is up to no good is asking you if it’s your first time in Istanbul. It’s usually their signal if they would try to screw you or not. First-time visitors are the most gullible. If you’re asked, tell them you’ve been in town for quite a while now. Don’t tell them it’s your first time.
- Insist on dropping you off right in front of the hotel. Some drivers who are planning to con you would find an excuse to not drop you off at the hotel. Don’t buy this. They know that a scammed tourist’s first defense is seek help from hotel staff.
- Be familiar with the right taxi fare. The flat rate is TRY4 and TRY2.5 is added per kilometer. If the cab isn’t moving a TRY0.35 is added per minute. A minimum fare of 10TL is also in effect, so even if your meter says something lower when traveling short distances, you will still be charged 10TL. These are how much a cab ride should really cost. (Estimates only)
- From Atatürk International Airport to Sultanahmet: TRY 50-55
- From Sahiba Gökçen Airport to Sultanahmet: TRY 125-130
- From Sultanahmet to Beşiktaş: TRY 25
- From Sultanahmet to Galata Tower: TRY 20
- From Sultanahmet to Taksim Square: TRY 20
- From Sultanahmet to Atatürk Airport: TRY 50-55
- From Sultanahmet to Sahiba Gökçen Airport: TRY 125-130
- Don’t back down. If they try to pull their stunts on you, tell them you’re calling the police.
- Or, just use Uber. Tried it multiple times and it never disappointed us. (Update 2017: Uber has been banned in Istanbul.)
2. Shoe Shine Scam
When we shared on our Facebook page that we had been scammed by a taxi driver, one of our followers recounted her personal experience with another scam. This time, it involves your shoes and big heart.
Their goal: Force you to pay for an overpriced shoeshine.
Their usual spots: Touristy areas like Sultanahmet.
Their MO: While walking, a shoeshine man will drop one of his tools in front of you. Usually, it’s a brush. You, being raised well by your parents, will of course pick it up and hand it to him. Big mistake! He will thank you profusely, and as a sign of gratitude, he will offer to shine your shoes for free. Except that it is not free at all. When it’s done, he will charge an amount so big you might feel the need to kick him with your newly polished shoe.
How to avoid: If you see a brush drop from anyone, I don’t wanna say ignore it, but… IGNORE IT. Keep walking and move on.
3. “Let’s Have a Drink” Scam
Their goal: Take you to a club where you would pay for the most expensive drink of your life.
Their usual spots: Touristy areas like Sultanahmet, Eminonu, and Taksim Square.
Their MO: You know the man who asked me to take a photo of him at the start of this post? My gut tells me this is his forte. To gain your trust, these scammers would usually pretend to be tourists just like you or an expat (they would introduce themselves as such). Their first line is usually, “Where are you from?” And they’re so adept at this that whatever you answer, they have a response that can be quite engaging.
They will offer to tour with you and for a moment you’re gonna have a blast with them. And then they will invite you to a club for a drink or — if you’re a dude — a date with pretty women. You’ll go with them because you’re having a great time with your new friend. You have a drink and enjoy. But when the bill arrives, you’ll be surprised by how much they’re charging you hundreds of Euros just for one fucking drink. They will try to make you pay for it, detain you, and threaten you until this ridiculous bill is settled.
How to avoid: Unless you met them at your hostel, don’t talk to strangers who approach you first no matter how friendly (or goodlooking, haha) they are. When somebody approaches you, tell them you’re part of a group and you’re waiting for them.
4. The Carpet Shop Scam
Their goal: Take you to a carpet, rug, or leather shop which is way more expensive than usual. Tour you around and then take you to a shop selling carpets or rugs for a much higher rate.
Their usual spots: Sultanahmet area and Grand Bazaar
Their MO: While going around touristy places, someone who will introduce himself as local would offer to tour you around. He looks like a legit tour guide and knows so much about the monuments in the city. He will even ask you to join him have Turkish coffee. He will then say that he needs to drop off something at a shop, where you will be forced or guilted into buying at a much expensive rate.
How to avoid: Unless you met them at your hostel, don’t talk to strangers who approach you. Should you really need a tour guide, book with a reputable travel agency.
5. Restaurant Scams
Their goal: To make you pay for food at an astronomical price or food you never ordered.
Their MO: You step into a restaurant and then somebody will give you the menu. You see the prices are okay; everything seems affordable. But the waiter will highly encourage you to try something off the menu. He will be so pushy, you will give in. The dish was nothing extraordinary, but when the bill arrives, you’re surprised to be charged for hundreds of liras. They will insist that you pay for it.
In some restaurants, you will be served Turkish pita bread as soon as get seated or place an order. And that’s okay; it’s normal. But then, while you wait for your actual order, the waiters will serve a couple of dishes and insist that you try them. You might even think they’re complimentary. Or if you smell something fishy, so you’ll tell the waiter you don’t want it. But he’s really persistent. You’ll get tired arguing so you’ll probably let them put it on your table and not touch it. But then, even when you’re not done yet, they will serve another dish. And when the bill comes, you’re charged for everything, even those you did not even touch. This happened to us at a restaurant in Beşiktaş. And when we checked online, other tourists have complained about the same thing on review websites.
How to avoid: Read reviews first before entering a restaurant. Always ask for the price before you order. And if they’re serving you food that you never ordered, tell them you’ve been in Istanbul for a long time.
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