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Turkish coffee is good. But not that good
Cheated in Istanbul, snubbed by Visa

May 4, 1999
The Iranian

In every major tourist city around the world, there are numerous traps waiting for the innocent tourists to fall into. That is partly the cost of world travel. However, when major financial institutions such as Merrill Lynch and Visa International, knowingly participate in the fraud, the issue is a cause for alarm.

I have been a loyal customer of Merrill Lynch Cash Management Account for the past 20 years. I have never contested a single visa charge. But on March 1, 1999, I was defrauded of about $4000 for the price of a beer and a cup of coffee in Istanbul. I had no choice but to contest this outrage.

After two months of haggling with Merrill Lynch over the visa charges, despite previous assurances, Merrill Lynch and Visa International have refused to challenge the international fraud in which they are participating with the deceitful and extortionist establishments involved in this case.

I arrived in Istanbul on the late evening of February 28. Because of jet lag, I could not sleep. I decided to take a stroll in front of my hotel, the Marmara, in the early hours of March 1. A smiling young man by the alleged name of Hassan Kivan, who introduced himself as a tourist guide, befriended me and asked to have a drink with him at a nearby bar. With his broken English, he seemed earnest and sincere.

He took me to two places that night at which I had a beer and a cup of coffee for which I paid in cash. However, the managers claimed that the cash is not enough and asked for a credit card. Assuming that I could always put a stop payment on it, I gave them my Merrill Lynch Visa card. They soon came back with a small slip that I could not read in the dark and, under duress, had to sign. I left Hassan completely exhausted and dejected. But I asked him to write his name and phone number on the back of one of the visa charges.

The next morning when I woke up, I wanted to know how much the two establishments have charged me. Since Turkish Lira is a highly inflated currency and the rate of exchange is about 360,000 TL to one U. S. dollar, I was thoroughly confused as to how much I was paying. Besides, the salons were dark and the men threatening. To my astonishment, I discovered that the first establishment had charged $1803 for a beer, and the second one had charged $1995 for a cup of coffee.

I immediately called up Mr. Phillip Knorr, my Merrill Lynch executive accountant in Honolulu, to let him know of the fraud and to request a stop payment on the visa charges. He was sympathetic, told me stories of his own bad experiences in Istanbul, and assured me that the case would be easily resolved. He also asked me to report the incident to the Visa Dispute Section of Merrill Lynch and request a STOP PAYMENT. The memo was faxed on March 1, the same day, with a copy to Mr. Knorr.

I also took the memo to the hotel managers and my tourist guide, Mr. Katsumi Makishi of Magister Tours, Istanbul. The hotel managers, Mr. Cem Gundes and Ms. Sima Molho, expressed sympathy and told me that this is a frequent occurrence in Istanbul. They also sent me along with a hotel staff member to the nearest police department.

From the careless attitude of the police, however, I soon realized that there is no use in a police complaint. The police are perhaps working hands in glove with the network of tourist traps. Mr. Makishi suggested taking me to another police station where his organization had some influence. We spent half a day waiting for the officer in charge. When he arrived, all he did was to stamp my report without recording the complaint.

Discouraged by the police indifference, on March 4, I wrote a letter to the Turkish Minister of Tourism, Mr. Ahmed Tan, and requested investigation. To this day, I have not received a reply.

I also pursued the matter by long-distance phone calls to the Visa Dispute Section of Merrill Lynch. Ms. Merrie Michaels of that office told me that I should wait until the charges are cleared. She also explained that sometimes, the fraudulent merchants decide not to submit the charges out of the fear of being prosecuted. Upon return to home in Honolulu on or about March 12, I called up Mr. Knorr again to see what has happened. He again assured me that similar cases have been easily resolved. However, he also urged me to call up the Visa Dispute Section directly because "they would listen better to a customer."

In my conversation with Ms. Sherry Alston at the Visa Dispute Section, however, I was told that since I had signed the visa charges on my debit card, there is nothing they can do for me. I brought back the bad news to Mr. Knorr who by now was ignoring my phone calls. On or about April 5, however, Mr. Scott Furukawa of the Merrill Lynch office in Honolulu called me up and asked to be updated on the case. He was courteous and sympathetic while repeating several times that he would have been equally outraged under the circumstances. He promised to call back in a few days to let me know of the results of his negotiations with the Visa Dispute Section.

On April 8, Mr. Furukawa called me up to say regretfully that his efforts on my behalf have failed. We ended the conversation by my telling him that Merrill Lynch and Visa Corporation were knowingly participating in an international fraud without attempting to severe their ties with the deceitful merchants. I informed him that I would therefore withdraw my account and publicize the case. A few days letter, I received the followed letter from Mr. Furukawa:

"In reference to our telephone conversation today (March 8, 1999), Merrill Lynch will not be able to reimburse you for the March 2, 1999 visa charges in the amounts of $1,995.05 and $1,803.27 you made while visiting Istanbul. While we sympathize with your claim of being victimized by the local establishments in Istanbul, you, nevertheless, signed your name to these transactions."

There are lessons to be learned from this experience. First, undoubtedly, Merrill Lynch and Visa Corporation profit from international tourist business. That is legitimate. However, when they knowingly refuse to break off their relations with deceitful and extortionist establishments, they are actively participating in international fraudulent schemes.

Second, credit card payments are convenient, particularly when travelling abroad, but they open you up to a whole variety of fraudulent operations. This includes adding a few digits in front or back of your actual charges. Third, travelers must be extra-careful in their dealings with strangers. My case clearly demonstrates this. If it happened to me, it can happen to you.

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