I Fell for the Old Turkish Bar Scam
I wouldn’t say that I’m gullible.
But, when my school friend Gareth told me that he’d accidentally destroyed his thunder box with an energy fist attack after playing Street Fighter II at the fish and chips shop, I may have gone home, lined my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles up on the fence, and spent a good hour shouting “HADUKEN!” at them in an attempt to replicate Gareth’s newfound powers.
(I believed him even after I’d seen that his backyard dunny was just fine: he just claimed to have fixed it.)
Another time, Gareth warned me that a girl in our class had contracted “girl germs”, and that the condition can be quite deadly for boys of our age. When said girl came to say “Hi!” I shouted “Get away from me!” and ran for it.
A few years later, I lost several thousand dollars when I invested in an “exciting business opportunity” (Gareth wasn’t even involved in that one).
And now, here I was, alone in Istanbul, getting robbed by Turkish gangsters. Classic Luke.
Before Turkey, I had been on holidays with a pretty German girl I fancied, in the most romantic place in the world: not Paris, but Dubrovnik. Croatia’s walled city is face-meltingly beautiful… but nothing happened. If you can’t spark romance in Dubrovnik, there isn’t much hope for your future children. Understandably, I was feeling lonely and sterile, and I’d also just had a fat Turkish man massage slash body-slam me in a traditional Turkish bathhouse, so at the same time I was very relaxed, and not on high alert.
I was the perfect target.
On a long, brightly lit mall bustling with every species of pedestrian – tourists, locals, heavily armed policemen, beggars, burk-adorned persons, street merchants and white people too scared to travel to the actual Middle East – I met “Fahad”. We will call him Fahad, because he said his name was Fahad. He was with his friend “Omar”. We will call him Omar, because Fahad said his name was Omar.
“Do you have a lighter?” asked Fahad. He was slightly shorter than me and slim, dressed like the spoilt son of a business tycoon with a gaudy watch adorning his effeminate wrist. Omar was the jock of the duo: taller and stronger-looking, with an impressive beard. He didn’t talk much. He just looked me up and down, foreshadowingly.
This was the Sliding Doors moment, where in another dimension, I continued down the nearby cross street back to the hostel for a nice night in, drinking cheap beer and having that same time-honoured hostel conversation for the millionth time: “Where were you before? Where are you going next? Where are you from? Oh, my uni housemate’s ex’s cat-sitter was Danish too.”
Instead, I egressed along the mall with my new buddies. I learned that they were staying in one of the five-star hotels in downtown — even the room keys were beautiful, Fahad boasted as he showed his to me.
“There is a club near my hotel; I hear it is very nice. Many nice ladies,” he said.
Ladies! Could this be my chance to break the Dubrovnik curse?
We jumped in a taxi together, and Fahad directed the driver in Turkish to a glowing narrow door in an unnamed part of town. We descended a lot of stairs and found a table in a corner. My new besties sat on either side of me and we were shortly joined by one more new friend: the beautiful Anastasia. She was from Russia.
I told her, “You know, my old tutor’s sister’s acroyoga partner’s life coach was also from Russia.”
She leaned toward my ear. “You should be careful about who you trust,” she whispered. I thought, That’s a weird thing to say! and immediately ordered a round of drinks: whiskey for Fahad and me; Omar stuck with the water.
When the bill appeared, my heart kamikazeed deep into my gut. Our couple of drinks came close to 10 thousand Turkish lira, which was about $6000AUD, or four boxes of avocados at the time.
Funnily enough, even though I was clearly being robbed, the three of us never fully dropped the friendly act. When the bill was presented, Fahad feigned anguish. “Oh no! It’s too much! But we have to pay now, we had a good time drinking and talking with the girls. It’s fair.”
Fahad generously offered to cover the bill for our table, and asked if I would find an ATM with them afterwards and pay him back. The sheer volume of Omar made it clear that there was only one answer to that question.
Forced repeated withdrawals followed, until one of my bank cards had been swallowed, leaving only my emergency card, and our charade continued.
“That’s all the money I have. I’ll have to owe you,” I said.
The ever-smarmy Fahad, apparently satisfied with his haul for the night, replied, “No problem, come by our hotel to pay the rest another night.” Then he gave me his email address, before driving off, leaving me scammed.
We haven’t kept in touch.
The more savvy travellers among you might recognise the old Turkish bar scam, which I’d read about that very morning on a big poster in the hostel, under a title, “DON’T TRUST STRANGERS!” (I know. I can see Gareth rolling his eyes at me right now.) Even without the benefit of the poster, the warning signs were embarrassingly obvious in retrospect.
Fahad insisting on explaining the exact location of his hotel and showing his room keys: purely a trust-establishing gimmick.
Omar nursing a water at the bar: of course, he was only there as the muscle.
The two of them sitting on either side of me in the bar: ensuring no avenue of escape.
In a way, there is comfort here: we humans are naturally very good at spotting danger. Usually if we’re in trouble, it’s because we have ignored our own intuition. This was to be an expensive lesson in keeping my eyes open next time.
According to the poster in the hostel, bar scams can sting you for anywhere up to one thousand dollars. Part of me is still flattered that they thought I was worth that much more.