Istanbul is a safe city, but like any big tourist destination, it can also be home to scams targeted at naive and unknowing tourists with money.
We’ve created a list of the most common tourist scams in Istanbul and how you can avoid them. Some scams may be similar to ones you have seen in other cities and seem very obvious, while other scams are more on the creative side. Having some awareness of these scams will help you avoid a potentially dangerous situation and spare you the grief of getting ripped off on your holiday.
So, what are the most common tourist scams in Istanbul?
The Most Common Tourist Scams in Istanbul (And How to Avoid Them)
The “Let’s Have a Drink” Scam
First off, any stranger who approaches you in the street by saying “my friend” is probably NOT your friend and definitely wants something from you. With that being said, the “Let’s Have a Drink” scam is one of the most prevalent scams in Istanbul, mostly targeted at solo male travelers or small groups of male tourists.
You will be approached in a bar, restaurant, or while walking along the main street of Istiklal Caddesi (Avenue) in the Taksim neighborhood. Usually, it's a well-to-do looking man, fluent in English, who approaches you with some flattering compliments or questions while he tries to start a conversation.
“Excuse me, but are you Turkish? You look Turkish!”
“My friend, where are you from?”
After some chat about your life and travels, you will be asked to go for a drink with the promise of perhaps the best wine, the best nightclub, or even the best Turkish ladies.
You will most likely be taken to one of the scammer’s bars in the side streets along Istiklal Avenue, with underdressed working women and ridiculously overpriced drinks. Upon entry, you will immediately be given a round of drinks for you and your newly found female company.
When you wish to leave, you will be hit with a huge bill that can be hundreds to thousands of dollars. If you refuse to pay, you will be kindly met by some very large and threatening men also working in the bar. You may even be escorted to the nearest ATM to ensure your payment.
How to Avoid
When given advice by a complete stranger on the street or in establishments, keep the conversation short and decline their invitation immediately. The scammer will then move on to their next target. There are much better resources for finding out good spots in Istanbul.
The Currency Conversion Scam
The Turkish lira has recently seen drastic changes, making shopping in local currency a great deal for tourists.
When shopping in a local shop for carpets, leather goods, wine, Turkish delights, etc., you will be met by a very friendly and helpful salesperson. You will be assured that their products are the most authentic and best in town. They may even make you feel good by letting you haggle the price down. Think again.
When swiping your credit card you will be charged in euros and not Turkish Lira. Suddenly, that 2,000 Euro Turkish carpet doesn’t seem like a great deal anymore.
How to Avoid
Pay in cash with Turkish Lira or double check with the salesperson that currency is in Turkish Lira before you swipe your credit card. The bottom line: if it seems like too good of a deal to be true, it probably isn’t true!
Your Friend, the Carpet Salesmen
The Sultanahmet and Grand Bazaar neighborhoods are booming tourist areas with many carpet stores and leather goods shops. You will be approached by an amiable man who may be fluent in several languages.
Afterward, you will be led to one of his carpet or leather goods shops. You will be graciously invited inside to meet his family members and friends where you’ll be given tea and Turkish delights with hospitality. He will tell you all about how his shop is one of the only shops in town that still produces 100% authentic and high-quality goods.
Before you know it, you will be stuck looking at every Turkish rug under the sun and still wondering how you got yourself into this situation.
How to Avoid
If you are actually lost, approach another tourist for directions. Chances are they may know directions to the sightseeing destination you want to go to.
Salespeople use this friendly tactic as a clever way to get potential customers into their store. Recognize this is happening before it goes on too long and you feel uncomfortable.
If you are in the market for a Turkish rug, be advised that salespeople can be persistent. Never give your phone number to salesmen as you don’t want to be pestered for the duration of your holiday.
The Shoe Shine Trick
Shoe shiners are ever-present in main tourist destinations in Istanbul, including Taksim, Sultanahmet, Grand Bazaar, and Galata Bridge. They have a couple of sneaky “brush dropping” tactics they use to lure their customers in for a shoeshine, then overcharge you afterward.
Trick # 1 - while walking in front of you, they drop their brush in front of you, waiting for you to pick it up and hand it back to them. Out of deep gratitude, they offer you a shoeshine.
Trick #2 - they will walk past you and drop their brush on your feet. This results in a heartfelt apology, they will then offer you a shoe shine.
When you think the shoe shine is for free, the shoe shiner will demand to pay much more than the price of a shoeshine. You may also get a heartfelt story about his family problems or sick wife during your shoe shine. If you argue about the price, you will be met by a group of his “co-workers.”
How to Avoid
Never pick up the brush or engage with the shoe shiner and keep on walking! There are honest shoe shiners in Istanbul who are not out to scam; just be sure you agree to the price beforehand for BOTH shoes. This should not be more than 10 Turkish liras.
Taxi Driver Scams
Istanbul is home to nearly 20,000 taxis, so you may never have a problem finding one. Taking a taxi is relatively cheap, but it’s important to be aware that there are many different types of common taxi scams so that a 20 TL worth taxi ride doesn’t turn into a 100 TL one.
Extending the Ride
This is a common trick pulled on tourists in most big cities. As a tourist, you probably do not know your way around the city, the direction you're supposed to go, or how much it should cost.
How to Avoid
This can be hard to avoid if you don’t speak Turkish or know the area well. Here is a Taxi Fare Calculator you can use for an estimated fare to expect. You can follow along using the maps feature of your smartphone to get a general idea of the time and direction you should be going.
The Sneaky Note Swap
A driver will swap out the Turkish Lira notes for that of a lower denomination. If your taxi costs 25 TL and you hand him a 50 TL note, he will quickly swap the 50 TL note for a 5 TL note while you are not looking. He then shows you the 5 TL note and waits for you to hand him the remaining 20 TL.
This can result in quick confusion as you were expecting change and unfamiliar with the currency notes. You now have just paid 70 TL for a 25 TL ride.
How to Avoid
Be sure to carry plenty of low denomination notes (5 TL and 10 TL) along with coins so you can give the exact amount. If you do need change, show the driver your note first before you hand it to him so he can prepare the change for you. If possible, try to familiarize yourself with the currency and note the different colors between different banknotes.
"I Have No Change"
You need 5-10 TL worth of change from the driver. He shows you that he only has 2-3 TL in coins, trying to score an extra bit on top of the fare.
How to Avoid
Ask the driver to go into a shop to change the note. Usually, the change suddenly appears out of thin air. You can also let it go, as it may only be a few Turkish liras worth if you don’t want to put up the fight.
Not all taxi drivers are dishonest! The majority of taxi drivers are honest, hardworking, and want to help.
Using apps like BiTaksi or Uber will help you avoid a situation where you are ripped off. These apps are review-based and most often offer support in the case of a mishap.
The Fake Goods Scam
Turkey is recognized throughout the world for its beautiful hand-woven rugs. Carpets can be range from high-quality to very low-quality and prices may range from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Unless you know what exactly you are looking for, you are at risk of being scammed out of a lot of money. The same goes for jewelry and leather goods.
Turkish carpet salesmen are very friendly yet can be quite pushy. They may exploit a tourist for their lack of knowledge and charge highly inflated prices. Carpets may not come from Turkey, but instead other regions such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Armenia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
This may not be a bad thing, as you can find high-quality carpets from all regions in the world, but be careful when you are given a certificate of “authenticity.”
Often, jewelers and leather goods stores will also offer these bogus “certificates” with contact info that leads to a bounced back email address and a false phone number. You don’t want to find out when you get home, the precious stone you spent thousands of dollars on is worth nothing more than a cup of coffee.
How to Avoid
If you are in the market for a beautiful Turkish rug, do some research before your trip. Find out exactly what you would like as there are several different categories and grades that may influence the quality and price. Ask the right questions and deal with a reputable merchant.
The same goes for buying high ticket items such as jewelry and leather goods. Stay away from merchants that are crawling in the tourist areas of Sultanahmet and Grand Bazaar. Don’t let them pull the rug out from underneath you!
A side note: Istanbul is also a great place to buy many “authentic-looking” fake designer brands. Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Armani, you name it.
If you don’t mind wearing something “knock-off,” you can score a really great deal. Just remember to haggle the salesperson down as you should NOT be paying top dollar.
This may occur in any crowded tourist area but can also happen in a crowded tram, bus, or metro car. Often pickpocketers will work in teams with spotters casually looking for potential targets. Misdirection is the tactic of distracting your attention from your valuables and then skillful sleight of hand to swipe and run.
When entering and exiting the metro, someone may intentionally block the doorway, causing a bottleneck. This is when a pickpocketer may strike.
How to Avoid
Always keep your wallet in the front pocket of your pants and wear your bags and purses close to your body. Keep your valuables to a minimum and on your person at all times. Never leave your bags or jackets unattended when at a cafe, bar, or restaurant; even if it's only for a brief moment.
Delicious Turkish food can be found at many restaurants in tourist areas on both the high and low-end price range. Just be aware of what you are stepping into despite the fact you may be tired and hungry from your day out and about.
Tourists may be charged for things they have consumed but did not specifically order. For example, while waiting for your food the waiter may bring out some bread, other small appetizers, and pour everyone some water.
You may think this is complimentary, but you will find these items tacked onto your bill later on, oftentimes at an unreasonable price. You may also be given a more expensive price list for tourists, than one that is offered for locals.
How to Avoid
Don’t let your hunger get the best of you! Use good judgment before spontaneously entering any bar or restaurant in busy tourist areas such as Sultanahmet or Taksim. Read the menu and ask what is included and what is not, and be sure to specify your order.
What to Do If You Are Scammed
If you are scammed you will probably be experiencing a number of emotions, mostly anger and frustration. Do not panic though, it can happen to anyone. The good news is there still may be something you can do to get your money back.
If you are scammed for a high-priced item, you can try to get your money back. Be sure to save all of your receipts or invoices from your purchase. If purchased with a credit card, contact your bank/credit card company and dispute the charges. Also, ask your bank/credit card company if you are covered for fraud/scams.
Some travel insurance providers may even offer fraud/scam coverage up to a certain amount.
You can also try to go back to the shop where you were scammed and dispute the transaction, but more often than not people don’t realize they have been scammed until it’s too late and they have returned to their home country.
As a last-ditch effort, you can contact the local Turkish authorities below:
Istanbul Tourism Police Hotline
- Address: Emniyet Müdürlüğü Turizm Şube Müdürlüğü Yerebatan Cad. No: 6 Sultanahmet, Istanbul
- Phone Number: **+**90 (212) 527 4505
The Department of Customer Rights Office
- Address: 133 Istiklal Caddesi (Ave), Kuloğlu Mah. 34433 Beyoğlu/İstanbul
- Located along the large walking street Istiklal (with the old tram). In the direction away from Taksim Square, it will be on your left about a quarter of the way down.
It’s advised that you visit these places in person as you will not have much success on the phone unless you have a Turkish speaker present.
Our most important piece of advice: be vigilant.
It’s very easy to lose your sense of control when traveling to a new place as you are already overwhelmed with new sights, sounds, and emotions. Be aware of the risks and be cautious of anyone who seems overly nice.
Remember that in the eyes of the scammer you are just a tourist with a potential opportunity to earn. Since you have read this article you will now be able to prevent any potential mishaps.
Nothing bad is meant against the locals of Istanbul who 99.8% are honest, hard-working, and friendly people, but we hope that covering some of the most common tourist scams in Istanbul can prevent a disaster from happening on your holiday. Remember, travel safe and travel wise, and enjoy your time in the magical city of Istanbul!