Friday, December 15, 2006 Turkey Turkey

İstanbul scams

We've met a lot of Turkish people here and they have been almost universally friendly, welcoming and genuine. Also, most of them have wanted to help us to spend our money in their (or their brother's, uncle's or cousin's) carpet shop (or café, or travel agency, or…). But you soon learn to treat the endless sales approaches as they do: as pure sport. The tourists float past like fish in a stream, and they try to catch them. It's a fun game, and as long as both parties treat it as such, entertaining and often enlightening conversations can take place.

Unfortunately however, this city has its share of scumbags just like any other. Yesterday we were trying to get to the Syrian embassy by taxi before the embassy opened (so that we would have a chance of getting to the front of the queue for our visa before it closed 90 minutes later). We allowed our attention to wander for a second and we were robbed as a result. We made several key mistakes: we didn't check that the driver had zeroed the meter when we started the journey (he hadn't); we didn't have the right change for the fare (we only had a 50 Lira note, and we knew that the fare was going to be around 10 Lira); we allowed him to drop us off on an adjacent street and confuse us by reeling off walking directions for the last 100 metres in Turkish; and—most crucially—we didn't keep our eyes on the 50 Lira note as we handed it over. Because the meter hadn't been zeroed our 10 Lira journey was actually going to cost 18.80 Lira. A bit pissed off by this, but relieved that we were at least going to be reasonably on time at the embassy, we handed him the 50. An instant later he had palmed it, and it had magically turned into a 5. Instead of getting 31 Lira in change, we were now being asked for an additional 13. In the confusion he actually convinced us that we hadn't handed over a 50 (it is only painfully obvious after the event) and so we complied (paying the balance in Euros because we had only had the 50 Lira note to start with), even apologising to him. At the end of the exchange, and allowing for the correct fare, we had been robbed of about 25 quid (USD 49). Not the end of the world but deeply annoying that we had been so stupid. We just hope the b@stard enjoys his ill-gotten gains and that Allah forgives him.

Another widespread scam in İstanbul is much less harmful and almost good fun. The city is full of shoe-shine guys who carry a box containing their brushes, polishes and a little step. They wander around all day looking for shoes to shine. The going rate is around 1 to 2 Lira and the good guys are always busy. They do an excellent job, too. Unfortunately, as with the taxi drivers, there is also the less honest variety. They find it a bit too much of an effort to charge a fair price and do a decent job, so instead they prey on good-natured tourists and overcharge by a factor of ten times. The scam goes like this: a shoe-shine man is walking through the city, without a care in the world, his box hanging from his shoulder. Suddenly, his brush (his livelihood!) falls from the box but he doesn't notice, and walks on. Coincidentally, the brush has fallen right beside some tourists and they see it. They call the poor man back and hand him his brush. He is quite literally overcome with gratitude and he shakes them warmly by the hand. He then insists on giving them a free shoe-shine as thanks for their kindness. The shoe-shine takes quite a long time, during which he strikes up a conversation with them. It emerges that the poor man has had a run of bad luck, and (to cut a long story short) he has a sick child in hospital in Ankara and he can't afford to visit the child or pay the medical bills. The only thing he knows is shining shoes, and so even though this was promised as a free shoe-shine, would the customer mind please coughing up 10 Lira so that he can look after his family? (Remember a shoe-shine costs 1 to 2 Lira). The tourist is embarrassed, confused and in 25% of cases, hands over the money.

After a week in the city we had seen this identical scam done so many times in front of so many tourists, that we decided to do us some scumbag hunting! We had discovered by chance that the nearest supermarket to our hostel is a prime spot for this scam. It is on a reasonably quiet, small square into which several streets merge. Lots of tourists end up here and get a bit disorientated when they arrive at the square, so they stop to work out where they are. The perfect place for a bit of brush dropping. We decided to hang around here and see if we could get scammed. Amazingly within 30 seconds a brush dropped at our feet, as if to order. This was too easy! Instead of picking it up we followed our target to see what he would do when not called back. He sort of slowed down and started to take great interest in a nearby shop window. We slowed down too, refusing to pass him. Eventually, with an Oscar-worthy bit of acting he pretended to remember something that he had forgotten and turned round. He made the mistake of making eye contact with us and saw that Glenn was looking straight at him. Glenn smiled and asked him how many people were fooled by his little act. He beamed back and said in very good English "20 to 25 percent!" He was proud and not a bit remorseful. Glenn thanked him for the information and we went our separate ways.

It had been so easy, so we decided we had to get this on film. The next evening we came back to the same spot, with the camera set on Movie mode, held at waist level. Literally the instant we arrived on the street we were again picked up by a scammer. The video below shows how he moves into position right in front of us, checks over his shoulder three times, and deftly knocks the brush off its hook by tapping it against his leg. When it falls Glenn focuses the camera on the brush, daring him to come back and pick it up. In the top-right of the frame you can see that he stops quite quickly, hesitates as he realises he is rumbled, then decides to come back for it anyway. Right after the end of the video he did a big grin for the camera and walked off (we've cut this bit because we would violate YouTube's Terms of Service by showing his face without his permission). In the true İstanbul way, it was all very friendly and good sport.


Anonymous said...

Heh heh... little did I know that the beautifully executed scam was an industry, not a one-off work of art. I was torn between respect for the execution and anger at having kindness taken advantage of. You immediately help, on impulse, can't resist the immense gratitude and free shine in exchange for your gesture, and get hit up. All tourists are rich in comparison, and thus fair game. Hell, in a world where an Uzbek teacher of Russian does better working as a waitress in Istanbul serving tourists (and leaving her two kids in Turkmenistan) than teaching back home, those of us who have the privilege to have to be on guard for scams, well.... we are freaking lucky.

Anonymous said...

We almost got scammed as well in Istanbul. It was when when I checked to see if it was a scam that I came across your page. I've linked this to Thorn Tree I hope that is all right with you.


Huks said...

I had the same story as explained above but in my case it costs 30 Lira

Anonymous said...

Those guys are still active and probably still reasonably successful. I saw it right in front of me while walking near the Grand Bazaar and was amazed as it unfolded just like a script.