I’m generally a very logical, rational, skeptical, and practical person. Nonetheless, like most people I can be a bit gullible and too trusting at times. I fell victim to what I would consider a pretty sophisticated and well executed (and old) scam in Turkey.
I don’t normally look up things about local scams for places I travel and don’t usually fall for them. A guy tried to pull the shoe shine scam on me yesterday. I’m wearing sneakers, and the last (and only) time I’ve cleaned them was when I had desert mud on them from Jebel Ali and I washed them off with the bum gun in Dubai Marina Mall, in one of my classier moments. Needless to say, he missed the mark. I actually saw a peer of his about a minute later polishing the shoes and giving a sob story to some guy as his girlfriend waited. Maybe I was in the shone shine scam district?
I’ve never sought out but have certainly multiple times stumbled online upon the overpriced drink scams, which seem to be most frequent in Thailand. A friend in the Philippines warned me of these before I left – but I already knew about them, and it was easy enough to simply avoid them – I didn’t plan on going into any place that might be running one. You know how you avoid this scam in Thailand? You just don’t go into places with barely clothed women saying filthy things to you who work at places called names like:
Pretty simple right? How does this scam work? You go into one of these places, get some drinks, maybe get some girls drinks; when you go to leave you are presented with the bill for an insane amount because the drinks have ridiculous prices. At that point the muscle also comes out to try and intimidate you. People then pay up and settle, usually not at the astronomical amount – but usually a lot. My friend in the Philippines noted that they would not touch you – I haven’t read a lot of these stories online but of those I have I have yet to read any physical confrontation occurring.
The Turkish version (although it does not appear to be limited to here) is well documented as the “Let’s Have a Drink” scam. It’s much more cleverly done from beginning to end. The psychology around the trust building, shared victomhood, and word choices to challenge and extract money are all very well done. Kudos to the guys that found me their mark, they were pros at this. While I appreciate how well my buddy and I were duped into buying coconuts neither of us wanted for too much by a smooth operator in Vietnam, we were only duped out of a few bucks and got some cool pictures out of that experience. I got duped out of a lot more here with this clever ruse.
My story is quite similar to those on the site I linked to above. I was walking back from dinner and about to enter my apartment. There were some guys at the door I didn’t feel like disturbing, it seems a popular smoking cove, and I just felt like walking some more so I went on past and kept exploring my area – I just got to Istanbul a few days prior. I was very near Istiklal.
I crossed the street by two other guys and they began chatting me up – asked if I had a light. I mentioned I don’t smoke, and the one asked where I was from. We began chatting and they seemed like cool guys. Their story was that they were in town just for the night, on their way to Doha in the morning. They used to be mechanics for Turkish Airlines but were now working for Qatar Airways and on a 5 year contract in Doha, with occasional trips back to Turkey. We walked by one hotel on the same street and the other guy pulled a card out for it and said that was where they were staying as we walked by. If you read any of the other scam victim stories, both these points will sound familiar as proof points to help establish trust. I’ve also flown Turkish, Qatar and visited Doha (shortly) before, so we had some things to chat about and nothing seemed amiss in that conversation.
As we walked, they asked if I had already eaten. I see some other victims go for some kind of snack on the way to the club to go drink. They said they were going to just have a drink for an hour up by the Hilton by Taksim and asked if I wanted to join; I just got here and it would be nice to chat with some more locals, so I agreed. We took a taxi and off we went.
We had friendly normal chit chat on the way. We got to the place to have a drink; my Turk friend who ultimately was my translator later saw the place, and to him, it was obviously one of these establishments called a Pavyon; a place that everyone in Turkey knows about, and he has known about since childhood. For all I knew, I was just walking into a cheesy lounge in Turkey with some new buddies. It did not scream anything like a Thai place would, and it wasn’t an obvious girly bar to me by any American standards. It certainly wasn’t upscale, but it didn’t seem like a girly place at all. It clearly was not a strip joint. The girls were all wearing dresses, and not slutty revealing ones either; I’d say pretty normal to tame among American standards really. My understanding now is that most/all of the girls are actually prostitutes – so a more accurate description than any other mnight be it was a lounge/brothel. I specifically remember the Turkish guys that brought me there saying it was a “Turkish lounge.”
The pic is from their website. To be clear again it’s not a strip joint, and that thing in the middle is just a dance area. Sometimes people were on it sometimes they were not. There a few other guys at other tables and girls with them too. I really didn’t pay a lot of attention to other people there else I might have noticed a little more off about the female to male ratio or the girls there.
We sat down and ordered drinks – I got beer and they got whisky. We continued to chat pretty normally. 10 or 15 minutes later, a group of 3 girls came up. They started chatting with them and eventually they all sat with us, 1 apiece. I was pretty happy about getting the cutest one, and also the only non-smoker. A server came buy and asked if the ladies wanted something, and did something along the lines of asking us each if we’d like to get a drink for our lady friends, to which we all agreed.
The night mostly went on like this. I need alcohol poisoning or a hot girl to make me dance; I ended up dancing a little but more for the latter reason. I rarely drink enough to get buzzed let alone drunk. My estimate is I was there about 4 hours and had 3 or 4 beers. My lady drank a lot more/quickly than me – not sure what she was drinking (probably really water) but let’s go with 7 drinks. Her story was she was a student from the Ukraine, studying civil engineering, she had been to the US before, etc etc. She was heading back to the Ukraine in a few days. I was pretty much left with the impression she was a student on break with her friends, staying nearby and just out for the evening.
Now I am expecting this bill to be non-trivial for my cheap ass and a night out – but by that I’m thinking even $150 USD would be high – all we had were drinks after all – mine was just beer and hers wasn’t that fancy. At some point one of the guys says he is going to ask for the bill just to check where we are at. A server brings it. The guy asks me to come out near the entrance where it is quieter and we can chat. The bouncer is over there. The guy I’m with puts the paper on the counter, and there’s nothing on it but the hand written number 2,875. I’m thinking I owe a third of it – which is still too much. 2,875 Turkish Lira in USD is $1,018.49.
I say something along the lines of I don’t have enough (900) and the bouncer says I need 2,875. He says this is for each of us. I’m not drunk, but my brain is also only partially firing. The shock of the price and the smoothness of the scam has disarmed me, and I do not realize that I’m the only mark here – I thought they were screwing us, not screwing me. Unfortunately, what followed was a result of that misperception and unclear thinking.
I think we’re being scammed, and I protest. The guy brings out a menu and the prices are crazy 100 Lira for a beer; any drink that a woman orders and the price is double. I say this is ridiculous; the bouncer says I should have asked to see a menu. I say nowhere in the world operates like this and it’s ridiculous. I think he was trying to intimidate me from the Muslim->American angle? He says something along the lines of, “My friend, you are in a Muslim country now. You are in the Middle East.” I just spent three weeks in UAE, and said something along the lines of “Bullshit, we were just drinking beers. And I just left the real Middle East.”
I’m trying to pay with credit card – so I can sign my name some variation of “Under Duress.” Although I’m not sure how well that would have really worked. Although a common suggestion, it seems some sites say it does not really help you much, some even say it is better to lie and say your card was stolen. So perhaps I am better off that they kept denying me the ability to use my credit card.
The other guy says he will pay for what I cannot… but he doesn’t have enough money either. He says he has to go to the ATM. I am thinking we are in this together at this point still; I say I would need to as well. The bouncer says there are some just outside, and he comes with us.
There’s a bank of 2 ATMs, I take the left one and one of the guys with me on the right. The other guy is at the table with the gals. I put in my PIN; iirc I didn’t note the English option right away and the bouncer starts typing for me. I didn’t try to stop him. The preselected amounts go up to 1000 Lira ($354) but he says let’s trying doing a greater amount first to see what we can get, and types in 2000 for me. I certainly should have stopped this but the shock and information overload in my brain were just not straight.
The way I remember it, 800 was successfully pulled out after that, and I thought we tried another transaction that did not work. Later seeing my account that was not really the case. It looks like the last attempt did work at 400 Lira, and I think he must have held onto that amount as well as any receipts if they were printed, as I did not realize the last bit was successful until reviewing my records later online. We went back inside (where my much needed coat I just purchased was – I got to Istanbul earlier and colder than I expected.) I had 800 in my hand on this walk and was still protesting this as bullshit. Trying to intimidate me some more, the guy put his arm around me and said “My friend, these are Ukranian girls. This place Russian.” I put my arm around him and said “Fuck you, I’m ‘MURICAN” – which kinda felt good but later I handed him a bunch of money anyway right? When we came up to the club to walk downstairs to the entryway, now two new guys were standing on either side of it.
I brought up them calling the police to have me pay the full bill, which they seemed uninterested in doing (but would have been a solid plus for me.) I handed the 800 over in my hand, and the guy coaxed another 200 out of me from my wallet. Then I was 100% done. I thought I was out 1000 total. I went to the back to get my coat. The guy asked what was wrong? I said something along the lines of the place being ridiculous and not worth the money.
He headed up to the entryway with me, and tried to “help” sort things out with the bouncer. I think he and his buddy were using some carefully chosen words with me and them situation as well, like “what, you cannot pay? I can pay for him. He has no money. He cannot pay he has no money.” – as if to challenge me into saying pft of course I can pay my own way! Although at that point I was certainly not going to actually pay any more.
One guy came out with me to help with the taxi – was still inviting me to come back in and sit with them a bit longer. He says sorry, it was their fault they didn’t communicate to me – the girls are prostitutes and they are just here letting loose before another boring 6 months in Doha. I still think they are fellow victims in this at that point. He and his buddy at this point have tried a few times to get me back to the table – my only speculation at this point is that it was to give my girl a chance at having me pay to take her home.
I didn’t realize I was (literally) right next to a Metro stop on my line (4 Lira) – had the taxi take me to the stop I’d use and walk home from (for 20 Lira) – a rip off but what is 20 at that point right? His English was not so great and the only word I know in Turkish is chicken. My brain was working better when he was dropping me off, but I could not get out of him where we were, or the club name. I almost had him drive me back, but just wanted to go to bed and not spend any more money.
I got up to my room and did some Googling, then found the Single Male Scams and saw that I had really just been the victim of a clever ruse that many had fallen to. I e-mailed my story to Tom, that runs the site. I called up BMO Harris to let them know what happened – although as this was debit/cash, I felt far less likely they could/would do much to help me recover funds. They couldn’t do much there, but they gave me the ATM name, which I can also see online in my account, which was Osmanbey Sube 2. The one bit of extra info he was able to get me was the ATM’s terminal number, TEB02147. I told the guy I was renting my place from on WhatsApp that I got duped into a scam, and went to bed.
Tom wrote me back and noted Osmanbey was an area, and Sube 2 just meant branch #2. I took the Metro up there the next day, and tried to walk around and see if anything could jog my memory – in reality I walked by it at least 4 times! However it was simply not that noticeable during the day, and my memory wasn’t that good. Apple Location Services on my iPhone didn’t log or trigger a revisit to this area – so it wasn’t helpful. I had Google location services, which I think would have been helpful, turned off (although they have since been turned on!)
I thought I was pretty hosed at this point. I’m staying at a hotel/apartment and the owner thought the cops were in on it and wouldn’t do anything. He has witnessed electoral fraud, shake downs of businesses from the tax office, etc. – there is a culture of corruption here and this is just part of it. I went back and forth between even trying to file a report or do anything about it or just take it as an expensive lesson learned and move on. Then I read story #14 on the scams site and saw the guy was in a similar situation as me – he had no idea where he was, but the cops knew, he went back, and was able to get half of his money back. I had also watched a video recently that taught me the one thing I could take away from this Donald Trump circus playing out in the US now –
The lesson that I learned is to throw out a psychological anchor point of a crazy position. This video is worth watching if you have the time. Inspired by what I’ve learned from Trump (or at least these guys commenting on his technique) gave me hope in having a better ending to this story than a loss of 1400 Lira (about $500 USD.) Really this became less about my wrong getting righted, or my financial recovery – what I actually really wanted to do was go find this place and negotiate and see how well I could do.
As the guy in story #14 noted, the Taksim station was a total pain to find. Once I found it, no one spoke English, and I had no way to get things moving. I was hesitant to ask my hotel guy to be my translator, as he so clearly thought it would be a waste of time, although he agreed to go with me. I must offer him eternally great thanks for that and even moreso for his wife, who he was with and came along with us for the lengthy day to finally find resolution. Should the cops be familiar with the place I was and take me there to negotiate, my crazy anchor point was not to ask or try to settle for around half as the guy in the story did – I was going to say I was robbed of 1400 and demand 1500 as I had to hire and pay for this interpreter to come with me. My friend was less on board with this though, and wanted to tell the cops he was just my friend and helping me out. So unfortunately I didn’t get to play that bit out later in this story.
I really wanted to see the look on their faces if we got that far – of course we left off from the hotel not even knowing where this place was. Just the general region. The station I went to might have been the one in guy #14s story, but mayhaps not the same lounge, and certainly not the right station for me to hit up. They told us to go to another. We went up to Osmanbey looking for another as well as this place – but nothing stuck out to me where we walked. I remembered stairs going down, and ATMs located nearby. We found some cops while looking for the station – the advised that it had moved, a bit far away too. My friend explained the story to the cops and one of them was like “Oh yeah, that is Ismar’s place” (name might be wrong) – like the guy totally knew it and was sure of it. So as my friend speculated, and Tom does, and stories seem to show – the cops totally know about this stuff. He basically tells us go down to the main street, take a left, it’s right by this store.
It’s the street I already explored a few days prior, and we already poked down a bit. I thought it couldn’t be right but he said the cop sounded super confident about it. We went down and… couldn’t find it. Kept walking to see if anything else would jog my memory, assuming the cop may have just been wrong. We sat down at a cafe for a break, and I showed the terminal ID to my friend. I thought the first 3 alpha characters were just something random – but TEB is actually a bank name here. There were TEB terminals by the corner the cop noted. It was a good idea to take a breather! Back we went, and there we saw it. I kept expecting stairs down right at the street level, as is common in many places here – and that is primarily what I was looking for. The stairs were actually recessed a bit past the doorway though. We found the place!
Online I can find it as Kalimera night club – however the current sign is something like Agva or Aqua or something like that. Under that black sign you can see two doors – the one on the right descends into the club. It was easy to miss and walk by repeatedly. Alas hurray it was found!
We went to the police station. I think my friend thought they’d take a report – I thought it would be more like the story – they’d simply take me to this place. That’s exactly what happened, we left off in the police car to go there. They asked how much money I was going to ask for back – I said all 1400. The cops didn’t like this, and said if I was going to ask for that then I would need to file a police report, go to courts, etc. all these discouraging things. I told my friend it was really just my initial ask, although I was definitely still going to ask it. The cops went over and for a while my friend spoke with me in English and the cops in Turkish – eventually the cops said fuck it, we’re going back, we’ll write a report. We did a u-turn in front of the place, where the cop driving gave some circling motion to the dudes standing outside of it – I think letting them know they expected to be back later. I told my friend I’d be willing to go negotiate but would not settle for less than 1000 while we were on the way back; I’m not sure if he brought that up with them or not. We headed back.
At the station and there was some chat in the parking lot, IIRC mostly between cops. I was under the impression no one much wanted something formal on the books really At the station we drafted up a report, and I communicated my story through my friend. It probably took 45 minutes or so. I made it sound like the events above were scarier and intimidated me. Plus surely a picture or video of him using the ATM would be available to get from the bank (well, assuming the ATMs here work like those in the US…) We both signed it after this. My friend called a lawyer to ask how I might be able to actually pursue this. I figured I could live with no money back, if it shed some sunlight and annoyance on this “business.” After the draft though, I was surprised that we would be heading back – they wanted me to pick the bouncer out of a line up. So back into the police car we went.
We got out of the car and headed downstairs into the lounge. Instead of going right into it, we’re routed to the left into the back room. While walking down the stairs into the better lit area on the left I just remember thinking “Here we go!!!” My Turk friend has never been to a pavyon. He has been told to avoid them since childhood, and heard stories of them just as long – including people getting beat up for not paying their high bills, and bad stories about things that go on in the back room. In we went – his wife stayed back in the police car.
I thought they would be Russian – my friend later told me that everyone in there was totally all Turkish. He said the first thing the cop said entering the room was “He is an American.” I shook hands with the guy who I’m sure was the owner and we all sat down. My friend and I, 2 cops, the owner, and 3 guys that worked there. I told my story and my view that this was a scam. My friend had to translate for the owner, several of the other guys there spoke English though – perhaps the bouncers and managers for the night. The guy I dealt with was not there, but I described him. The owner asked what he wanted from me. I said 1400 Lira.
We went back and forth on this point a bit – he said he has a place I spent time in, drank beers in, and hung out with nice girls in. I said I was robbed, this is a scam, not a real business, etc. I claimed he was a criminal that didn’t rob me with a gun but with a beer in one hand and gun in the other. Eventually he offers 800 Lira. My friend said he would have taken it. I said no way, nothing under 1000. I continue to protest that this is not a real business, and that my time here was not worth it. Why are the beers 100 Lira, why not 1000? My evening was not worth 600 Lira, all I had was a few beers and all I did was chat with some girls. Eventually he says 900. I say 1000.
He stands up and pulls a wad of cash out of his pocket, and counts off 9 100s and hands them to me. I take them. He asks are we done here. I tell my friend to tell him that 1 is still missing. My friend has an uneasy smile and is clearly giving me the “c’mon man let’s go…” look when I tell him this. He tells it to the guy and the guy starts bitching. I don’t actually know most of this conversation – my friend is translating like 20% of the conversation to me. The guy is actually telling him things like “what the fuck, why aren’t you helping me here, you know how this works – anywhere else they would just beat him up” to which my friend was responding “I don’t know, all I can do is just translate here, I tried to explain” – he was also regretting at this point going as my friend instead of my hired interpreter! The first cop said he was a translator, but the second told him he was my friend.
I have him tell the guy if I don’t get 1000, I’m going back to file the report. Then the next day I am going to the US Consulate, the Istanbul Directorate of Tourism, and the local tax office. The guy pulls out another 100 Lira and hands it to me, and says something my friend roughly translated to “I hope you choke down on this like poison” or something to that effect. I say ok, it’s settled. I’ll go on my way. The cops, particularly the one that took my complaint, is clearly pissed that we went through that effort when we could have maybe done this same negotiation an hour or more ago now. We head out and back into the cop car.
I figured we’d go back to the station, although no real need for that – and they were driving us just down the street a bit to drop us off. They were clearly annoyed though, and my friend said as much – I think their view was something like they did all this ‘extra work’ for me to ‘make’ 1000 Lira. In my view the printed complaint there added to my negotiating position. The troubling point though was they had my address – my friend’s business plus where I’d be spending the next 5 weeks in Turkey. I asked my friend if 100 Lira would be a big enough “tip” – although he said that was a bit low for two people, and advised 100 each and noted it was a nice generous one and was basically buying keeping my address and information safe at that point. I gave it to my friend, who gave it to the one who wrote my complaint and accepted the money after a little protest.
We went out for some beers afterwards – my friend was excited about his first time seeing a pavyon as well as the back room. His lawyer friend called him back and he told him that I got scammed, and the first question the lawyer asked was if I got beat up. I was trying to figure out if that happens now or only did back in the day; is it a real problem or urban legend? He thought as a Turk in my original situation, he would have been under much more pressure and beat up. Tom from the scam site is under the impression people have been treated aggressively. Although I have not found a story online of someone actually being beaten up.
Throughout the endeavor, perhaps naively, I never felt in too much danger. I think being both a foreigner and an American certainly helped. This place might really be one of the “nicer” pavyons – it’s on a pretty major street and visible area where it is located, even if it is hard to spot during the daytime. I’ll again also say this place seemed fairly tame – when I google that term and see other places, they are much more obviously girly places as the pics show women with less on or lots of coordinated dancing and such that makes it pretty obvious what kind of place they are. Maybe this one does too even, just not on a Thursday night.
100 Lira is a bit over $35 USD. My experience broke down to:
- 800 Lira back in my pocket, after bank robbery foreign ATM and conversion fees
- 200 into the pockets of some local police
- 400 to this “business” for some drinking and entertainment
I can certainly live with 400 Lira for the entertainment, lesson, and story from the evening. I’m not sure how much of the original take was split among all the participants or what all happens now that I clawed a good chunk back, but I’m pretty happy with how things turned out. On the way out of the club the cops did tell the owner something along the lines of “You’ve got to sort this out, this is happening too often.”
Certainly the best thing to do is simply avoid this scam, check prices, and be a little more skeptical of strangers – all things I actually thought I did generally well, but was well disarmed in this situation. I see this scam also takes place in some other places in Europe, from Budapest to London – I am a bit surprised at the latter expecting the rule of law would be much better there. I can’t imagine a place like this surviving in the US.
Anyone else fallen for this scam? Or any others?