Ripped Off in Istanbul

09/29/2015 04:54 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

I like to think I know how to travel. I spent 7 years as a flight attendant and did a stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the South Pacific. I've traveled around Thailand, backpacked across Europe, been to the Red Center of Australia, and have cruised from Mumbai to Dubai. But recently on a trip to Istanbul, I was blatantly ripped off... and it bugs me.

In short, my friend and I got in the wrong cab. After a long day touring around the city, it was time to head back to our hotel. Really, it was just a walk across the Galata Bridge that spans the Bosphorus Strait. We wanted to jump in a cab because we were tired of walking and wanted to get to our hotel quickly. I thought I was smart to hail a cab heading in the direction of our hotel, so we crossed the street to a very busy tourist area. Here's a tip, never think you're smart when travelling. That's when your defensives come down and you get scammed.

I approached a young, friendly-looking guy and asked him how much would it cost to go to the Radisson Blu Hotel, across the bridge. He quoted us in perfect English, 25 to 30 Turkish Lira, which is about about $8 to $10. It was probably more than it should have been, but my friend and I spoke with each other briefly and decided it was well worth 10 bucks to stop walking. We agreed to the price and got in the cab.

Suddenly, the friendly English-speaking guy called another driver over, who apparently spoke no English. They were speaking loudly to one another in Turkish, and finally the other driver turned and got in the car with us. Then he turned around and said he couldn't go directly across the bridge, because there was too much traffic. Too much traffic! He said this as if saying Lady, what's wrong with you? Can't you see there's too much traffic on the bridge? No, actually, I didn't see that. I didn't see that at all. "We must take the highway!" he insisted, and quickly pulled away from the curb.

"Where is the cab meter?" my friend asked. The driver, who appeared to understand English when he wished, joked, "Of course. No meter, no money!" And indeed, he reached down and turned on some sort of meter. A blue light flashed, but we couldn't read it from the backseat. I assumed it was a meter and I assumed he started it. (2nd tip- never assume.)

Next thing you know, we're speeding down a highway, weaving in and out of traffic, mostly splitting lanes. The guy is driving way too fast, but so is everyone else. We travelled thru tunnels and up and down hills, and the good news was we reached the hotel within ten minutes. Strangely, the driver pulled up past our hotel. He stopped the car, turned toward us, and said "30 lira!" O-k, that's what we agreed upon. My friend handed him a 20 and a 10-lira note. The driver took it, did a quick slight of hand and handed back the 20, which now had a small square torn off, in the corner. He said, "No, I cannot take this money... no good!" indicating the ripped bill. We believed him.

"O-k, well, that's all the lira we have," my friend said. "Here's a $20 dollar bill. Give us back 30 lira." The cab driver took the $20 dollar bill and somehow, made it disappear. Thinking back, I believe he dropped it on the floor of the cab, at his feet. Now the driver is getting tense. His raised his voice and we could literally feel a change in the air. "I only change $50 dollar bill or $100 dollar bill!" he said, clearly pissed off. What? What was he talking about? We just handed him a 20. Then he thrusted a huge wad of Turkish Lira at us and screamed, "Give me $100 American money!" I said, "We don't want lira... we want dollars!" I looked in my purse for some singles and came up with 3 singles and a $5 bill. I said, "O-k, take the 10 lira and this 8 dollars...that should be it." He took it. Are you confused yet? We were.

Next, he reaches behind him and tried to open my car door directly into the speeding traffic. "No! I'm not getting out on that side!" I said. Then I began wondering, what happened to the $20 bill we handed him initially? My friend is positive he had $100 with him- five 20's, now he only has four. "Hey, he already gave you $20. You owe us money back," I said. "What money? I have no money. You owe me 30 lira!" he shouted. He finally waves the lira and dollars around in the air, and screamed, "Go! Get out!"

He was SO angry! I began questioning myself. Maybe we didn't give him the $20? I turned to my friend, "Maybe we paid $20 to get into the Cistern?" Yes yes, my friend confirmed. That's it. That must be where the money went. We're not 100% sure, but more than wanting to be sure, we wanted out of that cab. We climbed out and the cab sped away.

We started thinking about what just happened and we realize the Cistern did cost $20, but we paid with a 50-lira note and received 10-lira back. We did hand the cab driver the $20 bill. He just ripped us off.

Later that evening, we went to dinner with a friend, Emir, a Turkish tour guide we had met a few weeks earlier. Emir, very matter-of-factly told us all about the scheme. The fact that he was so straight-forward somehow made me feel more naᅢᆵve than I already felt. He said the problem started where we actually caught the cab- a touristy area where knowing thieves prey on unsuspecting travelers like us. Then there was the issue of the meter. Thinking back, was the meter ever turned on? Was it a meter? I should have looked closer but, for whatever reason, I didn't. I guess I didn't want to appear distrusting, and I didn't use my intuition.

Next, the driver wouldn't go the direction we asked- across the bridge. Then, he pulled up past the hotel. We should have made him go around and park in the valet area. The ripped note he thrust back at us, was yet another part of the scam. It was definitely not torn when we handed it to him. He switched it. He added more anxiety by opening my car door in traffic. Then he offered us the wad of Turkish Lira, which Emir said, was probably fake. The guy didn't stop haggling with us until we became completely confused, felt threatened, and wanted out of the cab. He got what he wanted, we got duped.

We heard about another scheme they play called "good cab driver/ bad cab driver." One cabbie takes your money as another cabbie approaches. They stage a fight between themselves as to who gets the fare. The tourist gets scared and takes off, never going anywhere in the cab. At least we got to the hotel, I suppose.

Emir recommended the next time we take a cab in Istanbul, we snap a picture of the driver and the license plate number. If the cabbie sees this happening, they are less likely to take advantage of you because they can be fined, and lose their driver's license if you turn them in. On the other hand, they may not give you a ride at all.

Look, I realize it was only $20 and it could have been a lot worse. That's not the point. It's frustrating to get ripped off while traveling. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It confirms that ever-present bit of cynicism in my personality. Some people are just not as good as I would like to believe.

Next time I travel overseas, or anywhere for that matter, I'll be more careful. I won't think I'm so savvy. I'll use my intuition. Maybe I'll even snap some pictures. But, I also won't be surprised if it happens again.