May 10, 2012

Scams in Istanbul: The reality of trusting (3 of 3)

<< crossposted on 'The 30 Home Games' blog
Are your Spidey Senses tingling?
My mood definitely shifted, I became suspicious of everybody. I even began questioning the authenticity of my hostel roommate, a down-on-his-luck Canadian traveler borrowing money from newly made running mates. I knew I had to find a way to get out of this mental funk. Attention is a double-edged sword. Being a traveler, a lot of possibilities were opened because people were curious and drawn to me as an outsider. I was welcomed into homes and friend circles, now this attention was being used against me. I was afraid to go out, the simplest chores would be interrupted by the constant initiation of conversation. I imagine this is the reality celebrities and hotties live in every day.

My running mate who escaped the scam unscathed was someone I befriended on the trip from Goreme to Istanbul. We bonded over our love of basketball, he was a diehard Laker fan and former intern for the team. We played a game with locals at the courts in the Nike Beyoğlu store the morning after his ordeal as he briefed me on what happened. I had my epiphany, I would convert scammer invitations into a game of hoops. It dovetailed with my 30 Home Games mission, my quest for a basketball experience in each country. He was skeptical, it was asking for trouble.

The genius of these scams are that they're only asking for your time. It's essentially rapport building through good conversation, a few shared drinks which sets the table for the manipulation to take place. Its only when the betrayal happens at the clip-joint that one begins to question everything. A fellow traveler equated it to a relationship break up, especially one dissolved through infidelity. We start tracing its history, which parts were real? Was any of it genuine? Then we start looking inward, was it my fault for believing? I figured I could entice them to a game of basketball during what they thought was the "real" part.

The following few days I was upbeat, returning to my old self. Instead of shooing people away grumpily, I was looking forward to interactions but surprisingly the attention had waned. I can't pinpoint whether it was my change in energy, my familiarity or random chance. Interestingly I had begun to mutually greet one of the scammers like Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog would in the cartoons. He was a fellow in a blue/green puffer jacket I would regularly cross paths with, usually alongside a new Asian tourist. Our original encounter he tried to open me at Sultanahmet with the line "Hey you look like Michael Jackson".

In the closing days of my fortnight in Istanbul I did manage to find a genuine connection, befriending young artists at a Jazz bar. Over several days we hit the town, was welcomed into homes for dinner and tea and got to crash at a few places. The locals were understandably removed from this reality, they explained that some Current affair shows had shed some light on the scams in Istanbul. As it was a crime of opportunity, Turks from the east unfamiliar with the big city were also being scammed. Most attention was paid to non-Turks because they were ideal targets, distinct, lucrative and crucially - naive.

The charming person I spent most of the time with mindblowingly did her major thesis on 'Hyperreality' - a pet topic of mine. On my final day I was welcomed into her friend's apartment, we discussed scamming and reality as we smoked and drank in their attic. Their roommate, a Syrian revolutionary taking refuge in Turkey arrived late into the evening. He began in the front lines for the cause but decided his powers were best served in media relations. He weighed in on the conversation by showing videos he'd filmed that day presenting two versions of reality for the same event, one for dissemination now and the other truth to be released after the revolution was won. 

It was a memorable way to close my experience in Turkey and it gave me a sobering take on the scamming experience. I've always been fascinated by the power of charisma and the bending of reality but this underlined for me that its ultimately playing with fire. My running mate who escaped the scam had himself conceded, "As bad as it could have turned out, it'll likely go down as the most interesting thing that happens on this trip".

During this time creating genuine experiences with amazing new friends, the basketball mouse trap was the furthest thing from my mind. I never did get to hoop it up with a scammer, I didn't even come close to as invitations had dried up. I'm still intrigued by the prospect of holding court with a scammer but the idea served its purpose as it shifted my mood and I found the genuine experience I was searching for. I'll file it as 'incomplete' and still hope to achieve it if I ever return to Istanbul. If someone is able to execute it on my behalf I would love to hear your story.

After a great evening capping off my time and saying my goodbyes the morning after, I had one final rude awakening. As I checked in at Atatürk International Airport the teller informed me I wasn't in the system for any flights that day. I scanned my ticket, checked my phone everything seemed fine. It was then I realised that my calendar settings were set to 2011. My Turkish friend had borrowed my phone 5 days earlier to use her SIM, I must've mistakenly applied the wrong settings when I turned it back on so the dates corresponded to the wrong days. I had been operating a day in advance this whole time, my flight was actually for tomorrow.
Everything is real until the moment it isn't.

- Scams in Istanbul: Why I trust people (1 of 3)
- Scams in Istanbul: Why people trust others (2 of 3)
- Scams in Istanbul: The reality of trusting (3 of 3)

The folks at IndieTravelPodcast have a comprehensive discussion on several possible scams travelers might encounter - Indie Travel Podcast Ep 212: Travel Scams, cons and Travel safety

Have you ever been scammed whilst traveling? Has your sense of reality ever been shaken?


  1. An interesting take on dealing with scammers when we travel. It is a difficult balance between trying to be open to new experiences and trying to be a smart, safe traveler.

  2. Sometimes when we're taken advantage of by touts or scammers it involves losing money or physical damage. Other times the damage is mostly mental, a mood killer. For me I was fortunate to avoid the former, my main issue was dealing with the latter. It was an interesting, worthwhile feeling but not a fair way to judge a Country and people on.