How to Avoid Paying Bribes When You Travel Around the World

As a follow up to the post a few days ago about Transparency International and their annual Corruption Perception Index, today we will discuss the issue of corruption in a little bit more detail, focusing specifically on one of the most visible byproducts of corruption: bribes. Bribes can come into play just about anywhere and can range from petty shakedown attempts for a few extra bucks to graft in the thousands of dollars. Depending on where you travel in the world and what mode of transportation you are taking, bribes may come in different shapes and forms and be initiated by different types of people. In the case of The World by Road, bribes usually came from street and traffic cops, and anyone who has driven their own vehicle through a foreign country, especially in a developing county, has almost certainly been flagged over and been accused of some falsified infraction that is easily forgotten or overlooked for a price.

Bribes can come from anyone in a position of power; people who have the ability to deny something you need or take away something you have. Most visibly, these people are the customs officers and the police, but it can go all the way up to the top levels of government in any country. Corruption is a serious problem throughout the world and its causes are complex and solutions difficult to come by. One potential contributing factor is poor compensation for those in positions of authority. Among the ranks of the employed, police are at the bottom of the pay scale in many developing countries and in some places, compensation is so lousy, it almost guarantees corruption and abuse of power. It’s hard to expect someone in a position with as much responsibility and exposure to potential danger as a police officer to support a family on $50 a month.

It’s easy to sympathize with their plight, but it’s also difficult to rationalize paying an illegitimate fine and perpetuating one of society’s worst plagues. Whenever possible, The World by Road took a DON’T FEED THE BEARS! approach when it came to dealing with corruption. Throughout national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite or anywhere else bears can potentially co mingle with humans, signs posted in the area proclaim DON’T FEED THE BEARS! The logic is simple. If you feed the bears, they learn to associate humans as a source of food eventually leading to problems down the road for everyone involved. The same logic can be applied to extortionate people; the more people pay bribes, the more likely bribery is to continue. Sadly, many bears that become reliant on humans as a food source are labeled problem bears and destroyed. If only the same could be said for corrupt individuals. If the thought of an encounter with a hungry bear seems scary, think about rotting away in jail for refusing to pay a fine for a crime you didn’t commit.

Encounters with a hungry bear can be prevented; don’t feed them and don’t leave your trash lying around for them to scavenge. Avoiding corruption is a little more difficult, but there is one strategy that can help you to gain the upper hand in either situation and that’s distraction. In wilderness survival classes, students are taught to make as much noise as possible to annoy and distract a hungry, curious animal and drive it away. Banging pots and pans together and shouting is not likely to help shoo off a cop with dollar signs on the mind, but other distractions and annoyances can have the same effect.

Successful distraction techniques we employed while driving around the world came to be collectively referred to as Jedi mind tricks and here are some that worked the best:

  1. Make them do paperwork. Cops hate doing paperwork, especially corrupt ones, so shove as much paperwork their way as possible and ask for a ticket. Repeatedly asking for a real ticket can actually help get you out of a fake one.
  2. Play Dumb. Do whatever it takes to convince them you have no idea what they are saying. Make it hard for them to explain what they want and frustrate them.
  3. Call The Bluff. Most people cave when cops employ the scare tactic of threatening to take you back to the station. Depending on the country, they might be the ones facing the heat at headquarters if the charges are trumped up.
  4. Draw Attention to Yourself. Similar to calling the bluff, make sure that every passerby sees that they are trying to take money from you–wave the money in the air.  Make it apparent to everyone around you that the official is doing something shady.  They will get scared that a superior might see what is happening or word will get out that they are crooked and often will take off running with their tail between their legs.
  5. The Dosvidanya Technique. In Russian speaking countries, the only Russian word we spoke in the presence of a cop shaking us down was dosvidanya. Goodbye. On several occasions we said dosvidanya so many times, the cops started saying it too and that’s when we left. Repeat yourself a lot and refer back to number 2.
  6. Waste Time. If you have time to kill, murder it. The longer you sit there refusing to pay a bribe, the less time the cop has to fleece someone else.
  7. Focus Their Attention on Something Else. Ask directions, show them your tattoos, let them look under the hood of the first Toyota Tundra they have ever seen. After a while, they will forget why they flagged you down in the first place.
  8. Name Drop. Even if you do not actually have the phone number of a superior or someone that can put pressure on the official trying to extort a bribe, go ahead and drop a name.  Before you go through a country, if at all possible, get the names of leaders, police chiefs or heads of departments. The little guys do not want you raising a fuss with their bosses…and most of the time they won’t call your bluff if you start dialing the phone.

I am sure there are a lot of savvy and creative people out there, as well as those who have traveled and experienced their fair share of shakedowns, so what are some other ways people have used to get out of paying bribes? The list above worked for The World by Road, but it is far from complete and nowhere near comprehensive, so what’s worked for you?

Posted on by Steve Bouey Posted in Expeditions, Featured, Travel Tips, World Travel

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