20 Common Tourist Scams in Istanbul & Turkey (And How to Avoid Them!)

As you embark on the adventure of a lifetime through the hilly streets of Istanbul or the dazzling  landscapes of Turkey, it’s always a good idea to be street-smart and do your research ahead of time. While the country is known for its warm hospitality and friendly locals, there are (unfortunately!) a few tourist traps and scams that you’ll need to watch out for.   

If you’re looking for tips on how to avoid being scammed as a tourist in Istanbul (and Turkey), then this guide is for you! 

This blog post dives into the most common scams in Turkey and touches on themes like souvenirs, shopping, restaurants, activities and tour guides, transportation, and much more. 

Likewise, we divided this blog post into two categories: Common Scams in Istanbul and Common Scams in Turkey to make it easier to navigate. While there are many scams specific to Istanbul (like the shoeshiner scam or the fake ticket scam), there are also widespread scams that can happen in other touristy cities (such as Cappadocia and Antalya). 

After traveling all around the country and living in Istanbul for the past few years, we’ve seen it all (and almost fell for some of these scams ourselves!), which is why we wanted to write this comprehensive guide — as a way to warn other tourists, and as a way to expose some of the most common tourist scams. We hope this guide will help you during your travels in Turkey! 

Common Scams in Istanbul

The Shoeshiner’s Dropped Brush Scam 

Let’s start with one of the oldest and most common scams in Istanbul — the shoeshiner! 

Picture this: you’re walking around the Old Town, admiring the architecture and taking in the atmosphere, when a shoe shiner walking in front of you will very obviously drop one of their brushes. You pick it up and hand it to him, and in a show of gratitude, he offers to shine your shoe. 

Once he’s done cleaning your shoes, he’ll ask for a very unrealistic price for his service (10 to 20 times the usual fee) and get angry if you don’t pay. Ironically, they’ll even try this scam if you have non-leather shoes (like mesh athletic shoes). 🙂 

These fake shoe shiners usually hang around in touristy areas like Sultanahmet, along Galata Bridge, and around the Galata Tower area. One guy tried this scam on us when we were walking around Şișhane metro station. 

How to avoid this scam: Don’t pick anything up and ignore the situation. If you’re feeling especially spicy, you can leave and come back to the area to see how the shoe shiner tries it on other people (they each have their own area!) 

The Falling Simit Seller (Simitçi)

This scam has a somewhat similar tactic to the shoeshiner, although it’s not as common (probably because it hurts to fake fall, but we digress). 

The situation is as follows: a simit seller carrying a large tray of simit on his head is walking in a crowded area with many tourists (usually along İstiklal Caddesi) before suddenly ‘fainting’ or tripping on something. To add to the effect, the scammer even has a vial of fake blood that he spills on himself during the fall!

Naturally, people rush to help the simit seller, and in the process, he tells them a (fake) story about how he needs money because he has an illness. He then goes on to say he’s selling simit because he’s trying to fund his surgery, and so on. However, this is a made-up story to play on people’s emotions.

How to avoid this scam: Like the shoeshiner scam above, it’s best to ignore the situation. Police have been cracking down on this scam since it started in 2015, but it’s good to keep it in mind just in case. 

“My Cousin/Brother/Nephew Has One of the Best Rug Shops in Istanbul…”

There are multiple ways this scam starts, but the end result is usually the same… You’re taking photos of the Blue Mosque and someone stops and offers to take a photo; you’re lost and a local offers you to help; or a similar situation. 

After you agree, the person who offers their help will then try to get to know you and ask some innocent questions (where are you from? How do you like Türkiye? etc) before mentioning that their cousin/father/brother/etc has an amazing shop selling rugs/lokum/spices/(insert your souvenir of choice) that’s only a street away from where you are.

What a lucky coincidence, right? Unfortunately, no. Usually these shops look beautiful on the outside — who can resist those mosaic lamps and dazzling displays of lokum? — but the actual product is super overpriced and of low quality. 

How to avoid this scam: Thank the person for their help, wish them a good day, and walk away. If they persist, say you already bought souvenirs and don’t have money. 🙂 

Let’s Have a Drink Scam

This is a very well-known scam in Istanbul because of how long it’s been going on. It works like this: you’re walking around a touristy area (with a 95% chance that it’s Taksim or Istiklal Avenue) and you’re approached by a local or a group of locals. They ask you some harmless questions and then invite you to grab some drinks at a local bar or club. You order a drink, but when the bill comes, it’s a ridiculously expensive check (like, $100 for a drink expensive).

If you choose not to pay, a large security guard will suddenly come out of nowhere and ominously threaten to go with you to the nearest ATM to get the money. 

In the worst case scenario, your drink will be spiked and you’ll have much bigger problems.  

How to avoid this scam: If you want to test your ‘new friend,’ pick a legitimate bar, say you want to go there instead, and see their reaction. Better yet, just exchange pleasantries and don’t go anywhere with them. If you’re interested in seeing how this scam works from an insider, Scam City made an interesting video.

The Friendly Guide Scam

You’re walking around a major tourist attraction (such as the Hagia Sofia or Topkapi Palace), and some friendly local comes up to you and starts giving you an impromptu tour about said tourist attraction. You think it’s free and listen intently until his tour is up — but at the end, he becomes defensive and expects a generous “tip” for his time.

How to avoid this scam: Before the guide starts his ‘tour,’ be sure to ask how much it costs beforehand and decide if you really want (or need) a tour. Likewise, be sure to ask for the person’s official guide license and refuse if they don’t have one. Actual tourist guides need to go through a 2+ year university program, spend 700 hours learning about the country’s history, and passing the test before they can be work as official guides!

Enjoy our poorly-photoshopped images 🙂

The Fake Ticket Scam 

Let’s say you really want to visit a museum or tourist attraction (like the Galata Tower or Basilica Cistern), and while you’re waiting in line at the ticket booth, a local comes up and says he can sell you a cheaper ticket (or a fast pass ticket to bypass the crowds).  

Don’t fall for this scam — it’s either a ticket that’s already been used or a fake ticket that was printed at home! 

How to avoid this scam: If you don’t want to wait in line, it’s best to buy tickets to attractions beforehand — you can do so either on the attraction’s official website or via GetYourGuide (like this Topkapi Palace skip the line ticket!). We’ve compiled a few skip-the-line activities below 🙂

The Fake Police Scam

You’re hanging around Sultanahmet or Taksim Square when a police officer will randomly come up to you and ask to see your documents. While this is technically legal (there’s an actual police force that deals with illegal migration), there are also scammers who take advantage of this.

The scam goes like this: the fake police officer asks to see your wallet to check your identification, and while they’re ‘looking,’ they steal some paper money. 

How to avoid this scam: Carry a photocopy of your passport and national identification just in case. If the fake police officer persists, offer to walk together to the nearest police station — a real police officer wouldn’t mind this extra verification. 

The Pickpocket Scam

This is more of a safety scam, but a good one to keep an eye out for! You might have heard of this in other popular tourist destinations (like Barcelona or Rome), and unfortunately it exists in Istanbul too.

Imagine this: you’re walking around the street when suddenly someone bumps into you. After profusely apologizing, they walk away — along with your wallet or phone as well! This pickpocket scam actually has a few parts: the pickpocketer observes their potential target and looks where they put their valuables. Then they follow their target for a while before ‘accidentally’ bumping into them in the most theatrical way possible and quickly stealing the phone or wallet in the process. 

Another variant is when the pickpockets work in groups: one member tries to sell you something or puts a bracelet on your hand (the distraction) while the other person sneaks behind you and into your purse or pocket (the pickpocket). 

The most popular areas for pickpocketing in Istanbul are along Istiklal Caddesi, the Grand Bazaar (thanks to the crowds), and the T1 tram that passes through Beyoglu and Sultanahmet. 

How to avoid this: Always be aware of your surroundings and don’t carry too much money. If you wear a purse, we recommend getting one that has a zipper (instead of the magnetic button) and always hovering your hand over your purse. Keep your phones in your front pocket (never the back!) and also cover it with your hand. 

Common Scams in Turkey

If you’re planning to go beyond Istanbul and travel around Turkey, be sure to read up on the following scams: 

The Wrong Change Scam

Pay extra attention here, as this is one of the most common scams in Turkey and can be seen in many tourist areas! 

The premise is simple: you pay for something in cash (with liras) and get the wrong amount of change back. For example, we wanted to buy a bowl of fresh fruit near Eminönü (Istanbul) that cost 30 TL. We gave the seller a 100 TL note and expected to get 70 TL back. However, the seller gave back only a 5 TL and 20 TL note (25 TL total) and hoped that I wouldn’t know the difference between a 5 and a 50 Lira note (they both have a yellow/orange color). After pointing it out, he quickly apologized and gave the correct change.

This scam is typical in many places, from street food vendors (mentioned above) to souvenir sellers, taxi drivers, and even restaurants.  

How to avoid this scam: Before your trip, check out this Wikipedia article and look at the design of each lira, its denomination, and its color. After you pay and receive your change, count the liras and make sure your change is correct. Likewise, you can also pay with exact change to avoid this scam. 

Fun fact: If you line up the Turkish lira from smallest to largest denomination, Atatürk’s face turns towards you as the value of the lira increases. 🙂 

The Menu Switch Scam

This became less popular with the advent of post-pandemic QR code menus, but it’s still something to keep in mind just in case. 🙂 

Typically found in Sultanahmet (Istanbul) and Kaleiçi (Antalya), the waiter will give you the normal menu (with normal prices), and when it’s time to pay, the bill will have overinflated prices. For example, the Tavuk Şiș (chicken skewers) that were priced at 150 TL magically turn into 350 TL on the final bill. When you notice this scam and ask to see the menu one more time, they’ll show you the tourist menu (with tourist prices).

How to avoid this scam: When dining in touristy neighborhoods, always take a photo of each dish that you want to order and their price on the menu. That way, if the restaurant wants to pull this scam, you can show them the photos of the original prices. 

This menu has prices 🙂

The No Price Menu Scam

The counterpart to the Menu Switch scam above, some restaurants will literally just hand you a menu with empty spaces where the prices are normally written. This is especially common in fish restaurants, where prices change depending on the ‘catch of the day.’ 

How to avoid this scam: It’s best to avoid these types of places and go to reputable fish restaurants (search their name on Google Maps and read the reviews before you visit).

The Extra Items on the Bill Scam 

You’ve had the best Adana kebab of your life, sipped your Turkish çay, and are ready to pay for your meal … but wait, what’s that unfamiliar item on your bill?

Some restaurants will try to extract a few extra dollars by adding extra items to your bill, like an extra appetizer or dessert that you didn’t order. This is especially common on bills with many items (the restaurant hopes you won’t notice) and with large groups (who has time to go through and check if everybody’s order is correct?)

How to avoid this scam: Always check your bill and mention any discrepancies to the waiter before paying. 

The “Wasn’t This Free?” Situation

While not technically a scam, this situation can be annoying because of its uncertainty. When you’re dining at a restaurant, the waiter will put extra items on your table — like a bottle of water, an appetizer, or a plate of dessert — that you didn’t order. Thinking it’s free, you eat it, only to see it added on your bill when you go to pay. 

How to avoid this scam: If you didn’t order a dish but the waiter still puts it on your table, always double-check by asking if the item is free or not. 

The Ice Cream Seller Shenanigans 

This should be prefaced by saying that not all ice cream sellers are scammers, but there are some that definitely gorge their prices. 

This is common with ice cream sellers in tourist areas that dress up in fez hats, curled mustaches, and Ottoman-style vests (you know the one 🙂 ). After doing their famous ice cream tricks, the seller will tell you that you have to pay a crazy amount for your ice cream cone (usually 5 to 10 times more the price of a normal ice cream) because the show costs extra.

This is most common around Istiklal Avenue and Sultanahmet (Istanbul) and around the Old Town (Antalya).

 How to avoid this: Ask for the price before the seller starts his famous show. 

Overpaying for Souvenirs

While unfortunate, some shopkeepers will base their store’s prices depending on how you look (and how much money they can get out of you).

When I was showing some friends around Sultanahmet (Istanbul), we were tired and wanted to sit down and get something to drink. I went to one of the mini kiosks near the square and waited in line. The lady in front of me was quoted 10 TL for a bottle of water. When it was my turn, I spoke in Turkish and the water ‘magically’ became 3 TL. 

This isn’t limited to bottles of water, of course — any place that doesn’t have clearly-marked prices is a potential place to get scammed (i.e. souvenir stores, the Grand Bazaar, services like hairdressers, and restaurants — as mentioned a few points above). 

How to avoid this: Only go to places that have items with prices and make sure to research typical prices beforehand. If you’re in Istanbul, we recommend going to Beyoglu or Kadikoy to buy souvenirs. 

The Currency Switcharoo Scam

If you’ve been reading the news lately, you might have heard of this surprising scam in Cappadocia. A group of Singaporean tourists were taken to a pottery center (a typical stop if you take one of those green/red/blue day tours) and given an entire presentation about the pottery, the artisans, and how amazing their items are. 

The tourists ended up paying about $3,000 USD (!) for two pots, a plate, and four cups — and only realized that they were scammed when they googled how much these items should actually cost. The pottery center’s excuse was that the items were marked in USD, when they were actually in Turkish Lira. 

How to avoid this: If you want to buy any specialty items (such as pottery, rugs, tea sets, etc) it’s best to do your research ahead of time and ask around on forums like Reddit or TripAdvisor. Likewise, if you’re roped into visiting a pottery center in Cappadocia, check out their reviews on Google Maps and Tripadvisor before buying (there were plenty of bad reviews on that particular pottery center that scammed the Singaporean tourists). 

The Currency Switcharoo Scam #2

The above scam happens when the seller mentions the items are priced in USD (instead of Turkish Lira). However, there’s a similar scam that happens when you pay with a card.

Instead of charging your credit or debit card in Turkish Lira, the seller will quickly change the currency so that it charges you in USD or EUR instead. For example, instead of paying 100 Turkish Lira, you end up paying 100 USD! 

How to avoid this: When paying by credit card at a POS terminal, look closely at the screen and make sure that it says ‘TL’ or ‘TRY’ or the ‘₺’ symbol. 

Common Taxi Scams

If you have the option of avoiding taxis during your trip to Turkey, we recommend that you do so. There are so many taxi scams in Turkey (unfortunately) that we even had to write a separate post about them. Click to read the 10 Most Common Taxi Scams in Istanbul (And How to Avoid Them!)  — psst, some of these scams aren’t exclusive to Istanbul. 

Here are three of the most common scams involving taxis: 

  • Being Overcharged / “Taking the Scenic Route” :  One of the oldest tricks for taxi drivers around the world, this scam involves taking a much longer route than you should have. The best way to avoid it is researching how much a typical fare from A to B should cost. You can download the BiTaksi app and type in your starting point and destination to get an approximate price. 
  • “Your Hotel is Closed” : A popular scam if you’re getting picked up from the airport and taken to your hotel. The taxi driver will try to tell you that your hotel is temporarily closed (due to a bed bug problem/fire/inspection) and persuade you to go to his friend’s hotel. If you accept, your taxi driver will get a large commission from the new hotel. 
  • Is this my tip? — You take a taxi and the trip ends up costing 75 TL. You give the driver a 100 TL note and expect change back. He thinks it’s a tip and doesn’t give anything back. 🙂 The best way to avoid this is by giving exact change or paying by card (many taxi drivers now have POS systems). 

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