Unicorn Booty has heard multiple accounts from Turkish locals and tourists of gang-related cash extortion schemes targeting gay and foreign travelers in Turkey’s old town area of Sultan Ahmet and downtown area of Taksim. The most recent of these intimidating, gang-run shakedowns reportedly occurred one month ago.
Here’s how they work:
The gangs target individual travelers drinking alone in bars and coffeeshops. A gang member will approach in a friendly way, asking, “Hey, my friend, how are you doing? Where are you from? Are you alone? Mind if I buy you a drink?” If you say yes, he’ll pay for a drink as a way to gain your trust.
Eventually, he’ll say, “I know a better place around the corner. Let’s go there!” If you agree, you’ll end up at a (possibly gang-owned) bar who employees are in on the scheme. The stranger will then ask if you’ll pay for a drink, as it’s your turn. When you agree, his friends will come along and start drinking on your tab—these folks aren’t always male, someones women will join in too. After the drinking ends, the drama begins.
The bar will issue an astronomic bill—we’re talking a few thousand dollars or Euros at least. If your credit or debit card doesn’t have enough funds, they’ll ask how much cash you have on hand. Then, they’ll try to take that and may even get thugs to accompany you to a nearby ATM; some will even insist to see your bank balance to try and get as much money as possible. Reportedly, they won’t get physical, but they’ll do their best to intimidate you, making it seem that they won’t let you go unless you give them a substantial amount.
Thus far, these reports have come from gay, American, Australian and Asian tourists which suggests that the extortionists are specifically targeting these travelers rather than European ones or locals. The gangs will use different bars to evade detection and police have provided little help, both because of their lack of English and the fact that victims go to the bars and agreed to pay of their own free will.
One heroic eye-witness living in Istanbul told Unicorn Booty:
“I saw one occasion with my eyes. I saw an Asian guy who was openly gay in front of me. A stranger came next to him and asking him, like, ‘Hi, my friend. How are you? Do you want to talk with me and we can grab a drink?’ etc. First, I thought that it is not my business. But then, I became really worried about the Asian guy after hearing all these stories.
I came closer to them and warned the Asian guy. Then, the gang member screamed back to me and said, ‘What are you doing?! Do you want me to hit you?’ Then, I took out my phone and said ‘I am already calling the police.’ Then, he ran away. I was shocked and sure that he was a part of this gang group.”
We’ve heard around 10 cases like this so far. Murat Renay—a Turkish author, DJ and founder of Turkey’s first and only gay lifestyle magazine GZone—told Unicorn Booty that while he has heard of similar shakedowns, gangs tend to target tourists of all types rather than gay ones specifically. We have asked other local LGBTQ activists for more information and advice on how travelers can stay safe. We’ll update this story as we hear back.