Travelers must always be weary of scams when exploring foreign countries. Tourists make perfect targets for thieves and opportunists, as they don’t know who to call and, from the scammer’s perspective, likely have resources to spare.
Every region of the world has scammers, but they come in different forms. You’ll have to navigate pickpockets or muggers, cab drivers taking you the long way, or retailers giving you the wrong change.
Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city and the only major city that spans two continents, is no different. It’s a lovely city that everyone should add to their bucket list, but savvy travelers must be wary of the common scams in Istanbul.
Why Are Scams Common in Istanbul?
The US State Department features a short warning about scams in Istanbul, alerting tourists to the high potential that they’ll become a target.
Don’t let the warnings prevent you from visiting.
Istanbul is a lovely city, bursting with history and culture. Unfortunately, many of its residents are poor. The average salary in Turkey hovers around 7900 Lira a month, which converts to approximately $270.
Poverty creates an environment where people do whatever they can to get by, and scamming tourists is an easy way to make a quick buck. There’s also the belief that someone traveling from a rich country, like the United States, is wealthy and can afford to pay extra for the goods and services offered in Istanbul.
The Four Most Common Scams In Istanbul
I encountered four common scams while visiting Istanbul that you usually don’t see in other major European cities. Be on the lookout for them when you visit the fantastic city!
1. Shoe Shiner Drops Brush
You are walking along the street, and a shoe shiner walks in front of your path. His brush somehow falls off its carrying case, but he doesn’t notice.
Being the nice person you are, you pick it up and give it back to him. He acts exceptionally grateful, and then he offers to clean your shoes.
He isn’t offering to shine your shoes for free, although he makes it sound like he is. He wants you to accept, thinking it is free, and then he wants to charge you for it.
Luckily, I figured out his scam, and after giving the brush back, I politely declined his services. I wasn’t 100% sure this was a scam until the same thing happened to my friend later in the day.
Nice try, shoe shiners, but we are on to you!
2. Selling Cast Metal as Real Silver
The iconic Bazaar is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Istanbul, but it’s rife with scammers.
If you are going to buy jewelry at the Bazaar, please know and understand what real silver and gold look like and which markings are required by law. I took a class in jewelry appraisal, so I went in knowing all of the standards for silver.
While strolling through the stalls, a gorgeous metal bracelet lined with purple stones caught my eye. I asked the merchant if I could see it.
It was pretty, so I asked how much. The merchant told me it was silver and said it was 130 Turkish Lira. I looked at the back and saw the dark color associated with cast metal (commonly used in costume jewelry made from a mixture of low-value metals). I noticed that there were no markings.
I told the man that it was not, in fact, silver, but he vehemently claimed that it was 925 silver. I informed him that there were no markings on the back (The best way to know that something is silver outside of the US is to check for a “925” mark. The US and UK have the sterling mark and standard, but that is not recognized by any other country.)
He saw a little smudge on the back and tried to claim that was the 925 mark, at which point I walked away. I found another jewelry shop with all the items marked 925 and purchased a few bracelets there.
3. Giving You “Directions”
If you appear lost, numerous people will approach you and ask where you are heading. They will be friendly and offer guidance; some will even offer to walk you to your destination.
These people aren’t just being friendly and hospitable. They are trying to guide you to their store. They will walk you as far as their store and then try to guilt trip you into coming inside and buying something.
Unfortunately, you must be wary of friendly strangers while traveling through Istanbul.
4. The Aggressive Approach
This isn’t technically a scam since they are outright with what they want, but business owners in Istanbul really want your business.
They want you to eat at their restaurant and buy their junk. They are not shy about it and often are overly aggressive.
Restaurant owners will target you from across the street. They’ll dodge traffic to get to you, shove their menus in your face, or invite you inside their establishment for a cup of tea. Of course, they’ll claim you don’t have to buy anything; just come in, have a cup, and look around!
But when you get inside, they will guilt trip you into buying something with their sad, puppy dog eyes or aggressive sales tactics.
The sales approach is so common that some parts of the city have signs claiming “hassle-free zones” so tourists know they can walk peacefully.
Visiting Istanbul is a fantastic exercise in enforcing your boundaries and learning to say “no.” You’ll have to ignore people on the street to get where you want to go.
Other Common European Scams
The four scams featured here are unique to Istanbul and impoverished regions outside of Europe. However, you’ll also find your common European scams in the city. Watch out for pickpocketers, unscrupulous cab drivers, and sellers placing their wares directly under your feet.
When traveling, you must always be vigilant and on the lookout for people who think you’re an easy target.