Saturday, February 21, 2009

Money overcharges: criminal actions

Besides the two obvious types of credit card overcharges -- when you notice it right away, or when you don't notice until much later -- there is a third type of overcharge that is equally important to know about, think about, and plan about before and while you live in a new area. This is particularly prevalent in Turkey - though I've read recent stories about its rise in more developed areas. Note, of course, that this advice is particular only to Turkey, where violent crime is relatively rare and the chance that a situation like this will become actually dangerous is quite small.

Situation Three: Criminal actions
A guy I know came to visit Istanbul for a short period of time. A common scam in tourist areas is for a local guy to come up to a foreigner and start a conversation. Eventually, they go to a bar that the local guy suggests. A few drinks later when the foreigner goes to leave, the bill comes - for a few thousand lira. It sounds too outrageous to be true, but I have met a number of people who fell for this - and I am sure there are even more who are ashamed to come forth with their woeful tales. Unlike typical overcharges, where my other friends did not realize they were being charged too much until after the transaction had been completed, the overcharge is readily apparent; so too is the fact that unless payment is received, the foreigner is going to be hurt.

What happens if you find yourself in a situation like this - or any other - where you are afraid? It's not enough, like so many blogs, to merely say 'Avoid that type of situation!' Whether it's becoming the victim of a crime or of an elaborate scheme like the one described above, many times, people were targeted by savvy con artists who make their living determining how to trick smart people.

So what can you do in such a situation? What my friend did - paying the several thousand lira, is one way to get out and get out fast. This is a particularly important route if you are confronted with extreme danger: guns, knives, etc. He resolved danger, but in a costly way. If he had been here longer, he might have heard about the way the scam usually played out and realized that the "I will take you to a bar" trick is not actually a very dangerous situation, and there are ways to get away without paying as much.

Aside, then, from paying the exorbitant fee, what else could he have done? There are two main solutions that have worked for people I know:

First: if told they had to pay a ridiculous amount of money, they got to an ATM in any was possible. They said they needed a PIN, or their bank only accepted ATM withdrawals - whatever they thought would get them outside. They even had people accompany them to the ATM. After that, they either showed they had no money in their accounts, or they made a scene and don't stop until people noticed. These scams are most popular in Turkey in a very crowded area - called Taksim - where there are countless people walking in the streets. Never underestimate the power of a public scene.

Second: barter the amount down. Not shockingly, most people, when confronted with a bill for a few thousand lira for a few glasses of beer, will refuse to pay. Does the bar really want that thousand lira? Sure - but they'll settle for a few hundred. It's not a perfect solution, but it certainly minimizes the risk. They said whatever they had to to reduce this amount - that transactions over a few hundred of dollars required a call to the bank by someone else, that their card just didn't accept amounts that high, that they were near their credit limit. As with all bargaining, they were firm and stuck to their goal of minimizing the cost.

When it's all done, file a police report! It may come to nothing, but at least you will have evidence of a crime. Note, however, that most credit card companies will not waive the charges, even if they were made under duress. Crazy but true. I called several companies - MasterCard and Visa - and learned that their policy is that no matter the situation, if the cardholder 'approved' the charges, they were stuck with the amount billed. Because of that, your best bet is to minimize as much as possible before paying.

Photo by Ned Kelly

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