Turkish coffee is good. But not that good
Cheated in Istanbul, snubbed by Visa
May 4, 1999
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
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
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
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