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In Uzbekistan I was stopped, searched and questioned six times in one day.

At the border with Tajikistan, one official tried hiding my paperwork to elicit something from me.

In Kyrgyzstan, I was physically harassed and detained by the police, and about US$30 taken while they searched everything on me and a Dutch backpacker I was going to get food with.

I'm not particularly dodgy looking - it's happening to a lot of backpackers I meet. Tourists are apparently a prime target for corrupt officials.

Any suggestions or tactics for avoiding these occurrences? Aside from carrying only photocopies of your passport so that they can't hold your passport ransom, I've not heard many successful tips...

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Not carrying your passport on your person is an offence in some countries that corrupt (or even level) police officers can haul you in for. Be careful about that. –  Ankur Banerjee Jul 24 '11 at 5:57
    
Correct, I personally still carry mine because of that, and I back myself to get it off them again. But many others are shocked by that, theirs goes straight into a safe if possible :) –  Mark Mayo Jul 24 '11 at 6:00
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Added point of interest - just been shown this new site: bribespot.com - not sure how effective it'll end up being, but it's an interesting attempt to catalogue events like this. –  Mark Mayo Aug 28 '11 at 14:21
    
I'm afraid in many cases you cannot easily avoid that... One traveller to Central Africa (try to ask him!) had terrible experience with police at highway checkpoints. There were like 22 checkpoints on their way - so it is unavoidable. Once they received judgment of death for nothing, but were saved at last. He said they only let you be if they somehow scent that you don't have money (which you normally have). –  Tomas Sep 8 '11 at 16:35
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Was in Uzbekistan for 3 weeks in 2011. We were stopped exactly twice, at checkpoints on the main highway. Both times after a cursory check of our vehicle we were waved through. May have helped that we had a local driver and a guide who spoke fluent Russian and a bit of Uzbek. –  jwenting Sep 26 '13 at 6:54
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9 Answers 9

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+50

I live in a very corrupt country - Ukraine. Let me give you some advice.

  1. First, try to avoid looking like stranger. Try to look like the locals. That is often difficult, I know.

It's the only advice about how to avoid corrupt police. They often search for strangers just to get some money from them, because strangers are easy meat. All the other advice is how to deal with bribes and police.

  1. The key is your behaviour. In corrupt countries it is very important to behave like you are a very important authority. Corrupt policemen are afraid of their bosses only. You need to make them think that you can contact local authorities or your embassy to ask for help. This where the second tip comes from...
  2. Take with you local embassy phone numbers. Call them whenever any problem with bribes and corruption happens. In my experience that mostly helps, however it depends on the embassy. All developed countries have very good embassies and own citizen's protection mechanisms.
  3. If you are forced to give bribes to police, then ask the police officers to help you to avoid all future problems with other officers. They are mostly happy to help you with that. It's like a deal, you give him a bribe - he helps you in the future. Take their phone numbers, for example, in order to call them when the next police officer harasses you.
  4. I believe it is very important to have an interpreter with you. Without one you'll be harassed too often. And make sure the interpreter also behaves like alpha-male.
  5. The bribe value for strangers is usually 10 times higher then same for locals. So, you can bargain with them. For example, a $30 USD bribe could be $3 USD.
  6. Never give your IDs or papers to police. Just show your documents and refuse to give them. That works in all ex-USSR countries.
  7. Try to never leave your car to talk to police. Talk through the window only.
  8. If they frighten you with a gun - they have broken a very serious law. Unfastening a holster, talking about their guns - that's what I'm talking about. Call the embassy immediately. However, I've never heard of a policeman who broke that law.
  9. Never run away from police. In this case you can get into a lot of trouble.

This is not a complete list, of course. But I tried to make it as descriptive as possible.

To summarize, I'd like to remind that your dominating behaviour is the key.

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In some countries, business cards of senior cops or embassy officials can act as a get-out-of-trouble pass. –  dbkk Nov 20 '11 at 16:31
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@dbkk -- some countries including, for better or worse, the US. –  Malvolio Dec 2 '11 at 23:55
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To avoid getting harassed?

Avoid the police in places where they have a very bad reputation, like Mexico City. In my experience at least in Mexico City the corrupt ones always look evil. The ones that look nice actually are nice. Look in their eyes and you might be able to see it even from a distance. (I'm really not kidding)

When you can't avoid the police?

Then there's not much you can do without risking a "resisting arrest" charge.

When you couldn't avoid the police and they did hassle you and something bad happened?

If you are somewhere with tourist police, go straight to them. In my experience in various countries with tourist police, these ones are always nice people. Whether they can actually do anything is another matter but you might at least be able to get paperwork from them you need for your insurance. Even in places without tourist police there should always be somewhere you can file a complaint against the police. I've gone with a Mexican friend who wanted to file a complaint against the police in Mexico City. Be aware what you are taking on if you press this though. Even in advanced modern western countries like the US and Australia you could end up in over your head even if you are 100% in the right!

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+1 for tourist police. They saved my butt in Cairo. –  Ginamin Jul 25 '11 at 2:38
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I don't think anyone actively seeks out the police - 'avoid them' is normal behavior. Problem in these countries is that the police are seeking you out... –  Mark Mayo Jul 30 '11 at 11:15
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You would be surprised. Three guys I knew from my hostel got kidnapped by corrupt police one night in Mexico City years ago after deciding the ATM with the police car nearby would be the safest one to use after dark. –  hippietrail Oct 1 '11 at 11:56
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First, in problematic places I would try to avoid interacting with the police as much as possible. Another strategy is patience. Usually, corrupt police are just trying to make quick money off an easy victim. Tourists are an obvious target because they tend to have more money and are more likely to be unfamiliar with the local language and customs.

If you are being harassed, stay calm and polite and try to keep things moving as slowly as possible. Try to ask for the officer to clearly and slowly explain what is happening. If there are other officers around try to get them involved too. Try to see if you can see a written copy of the rule you are breaking. Ask for paperwork to be filled out and try to see if you can go to the local station to take care of the "problem". All of these are delaying tactics which show the official that you are not going to panic and give them money the second they ask for it. If you're lucky, they'll realize you're probably more of a pain to scam than it's worth and they will let you go.

Some people recommend trying the "I'm just a tourist and I don't understand anything you're saying" tactic, but honestly I think that would be pretty hard to pull-off convincingly.

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+1 for getting the other officers involved. Trying to get them to take you to the station is advised in Mexico City but I've been advised against it in some other parts of the world. –  hippietrail Jul 24 '11 at 16:14
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I'd advise against it in Kyrgyzstan - that's where they took us and were the only ones there... –  Mark Mayo Jul 29 '11 at 9:59
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In some places, the system is so corrupt that you're probably better offer just paying the bribe rather than trying to get out of it. Delaying tactics may escalate the issue and make your situation worse. –  user27478 Jul 30 '11 at 14:35
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Wow, that's pretty much the worst advice I can think of (beyond the "calm and polite" part). Why would you want other police involved? Are you under the grotesque misapprehension that you found one bad apple? Most country with significant corruption, the corruption is endemic. And "a written copy" of a rule? Saying "please punch me in the mouth" would be more polite and have the same effect. And even honest cops don't subscribe to the notion of "let the pain-in-the-ass ones go" -- piss them off enough, they'll find a reason to hang to you. –  Malvolio Dec 3 '11 at 0:00
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@Malvolio I don't think there's one correct answer to this question. That being said, I have personally used this technique successfully several times when stopped by police. It has also been recommended to me by several people with experience in the area of security. Obviously every situation and country is different, and if this strategy doesn't seem to be working I would suggest trying one of the other suggestions. –  user27478 Dec 3 '11 at 9:30
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The key tactic no one else mentioned - relax and do your best to not look like a foreigner.

I can't explain it, but whenever I notice a strange well dressed person that person turns out to be a foreigner - he has some concentrated+excited look and behaves largely different from local people. Again, I can't explain it in full - foreigners while being absolutely usual from physical looks standpoint and even when they don't say a word still have something that makes them look unadapted and weird. This is very easily noticed by anyone who's interested and of course corrupt police gets programmed to spot and address such people.

So clearly once you look usual and you have decent (here I mean, well fitting, washed and untorn) clothes chances of you being stopped by police are decreased greatly. This applies regardless of whether you're a foreigner or a local.

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Caveat is that this tactic will work only in places where you fit in ethnically. –  Ankur Banerjee Sep 9 '11 at 8:58
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@Ankur Banerjee: Yes, sort of. But even then if you look like a person who came from abroad and lived ten years and got adapted I'm pretty sure the police will not be so eager to rip you off as if you looked like you just get off the plane. –  sharptooth Sep 9 '11 at 9:01
    
I agree with this. I always try to dress "locally" for where I visit and, aside from the answer I posted, I've yet to be harassed. For example, I spent most of my time walking around Bamako, Mali in a soccer jersey and jeans, just what the locals wear. So while I'm white and stood out everywhere I went, I felt like some people looked at me wondering "does this guy live here?" rather than automatically thinking "oh look, a tourist" - I saw other people with shorts, touristy-shirts, cameras over their necks, etc. They stood out much more than I did! –  ZeekLTK Sep 25 '13 at 15:23
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My strategy is to not avoid getting shaken down by corrupt officials. I don't think the average corrupt cop enjoys being a corrupt cop; he finds it humiliated and demoralizing. On the other hand, he has to eat.

So, treat it as an ordinary business transaction or government fee. Inquire about the price, pay up cheerfully, and thank him for his assistance. In some places, you can even get a receipt.

You won't save any money, but if you make the whole transaction less harrowing for him, he'll make it less harrowing for you.

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A fellow traveler once told me that a Mexican police man picked him up to ask for money when he was drunk. He swears that the policeman's exact words were, "Hop in, mi amigo!" –  Rice Flour Cookies Dec 2 '11 at 21:18
    
My point exactly: the cop was thinking "I'll get this idiot off the sidewalk and make a few bucks." I'm sure the cop would have been happy to drop your friend off at his hotel if it wasn't far. –  Malvolio Dec 2 '11 at 23:54
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See to me that's a corrupt cop if he's asking for money. They do get paid. For example in Mendoza, Argentina, some cops picked us up outside of town at dusk, explaining it was a dangerous area of town in the dark. They drove us back into town to our hostel and wished us a good night. Now THAT's good public service! –  Mark Mayo Dec 15 '11 at 3:17
    
+1 for being <s>honest</s> candid. I'm not sure if you're being downvoted because people disagree with the answer, or because it's a "don't do it" answer. –  Andrew Grimm Jan 19 '12 at 4:04
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A key here is "networking," that is, "playing the influence game."

Policemen respect "authority." They may pick on you if you appear to have no "authority," particularly if you're "young" (in your teens or twenties). Thus, it helps to know people that they would respect. Or at least give them the impression that you do (this happens more easily if you look old and wealthy).

The best authority to know is a local government official. The mayor would be ideal. A deputy mayor, precinct leader, or member of the local governing party is fine. A federal official might work. Tell them that you have a "friend in high places" (and have a business card to back it up).

The second best "authority" is a multinational corporation. Even if you are a low level employee of say, McDonald's, most local authorities wouldn't want to tangle with such a company (who can sue them). If you have business card from a multinational, show it. Or use the business card of a client or a friend.

If all else fails and you have to pay, I'd follow the suggestion of one of the other answerers, and try to add the policeman to your "network." That is, get them to protect you against OTHERS. After all, they are "local officials" as described two paragraphs ago.

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In Romania the police is also corrupt but fortunately the bribe is working VERY well especially with old generation. The policeman in Romania will not take you to the police station for minor stuff because it involves way too much paper work. Just enter into discussion with them, smile and show your intention to pay a small bribe by holding your wallet in your hand (don't make it obvious, just visible enough). The amount to give is really small. For example the fee for a speed ticket for example is 70 lei (divide to 4.5 to get the amount in euros) if you pay it on spot. Pay it as bribe (don't ask a receipt) to the policeman an it will let you go.

Another nice thing to know: in Romania you can go with any speed you want if you have a car with foreigner plates. There are no speed cameras. You get a ticket ONLY if the policeman catches you. But they are not connected to the international database so it will be a nightmare for them to send you the ticket in your home-country.

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I don't think arguing in favour of excess of speed is a very good argument. Remember that before being a driver you are also a pawn. –  nsn Jan 22 '13 at 15:34
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In addition to tips on right behaviour, I would recommend using some digital resources to get your way out of trouble. Dropbox is great for saving copies of your ticket/IDs/docs for emergency purposes. Bribespot, an app that was already mentioned by Mark Mayo, is an app that allows you to report corruption and browse bribe stories submitted by other people in your current location. And keep some small change just in case too.

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I have to agree that behaviour and dress go a long way. If you can't blend in as a local because of your cultural features at least try and look like you live there.

Move with confidence, don't stand around looking lost with a map in your hand, dress like locals or 'non-touristy'.

For example, it is my second time in Kathmandu and I don't walk around in all trekking clothes like most tourists but jeans and a leather jacket with an normal shoulder bag. I move through the streets with confidence since I know where I am going.. and lo and be hold I am amazed the touts leave me nearly completely alone. I imagine this would also have an impact on corrupt police also. If they don't have a legitimate claim they would go for targets that seem easily intimidated / shaken.

If I was in a situation where I was clearly not at fault and the bribe that was asked was high.. I would insist to engage my embassy for 'translation' purposes as I don't 'understand' the charges laid against me. All in a friendly and co-operative manner of course.

On the other hand I think it's also important to know when to cut your losses. I got done twice (on the same route) riding a bike without an international license in Bali. The first cop was very straight forward and asked me for approx. $20AUD. I paid and he let me ride on. The second cop was really scary. He seemed prim and proper and went on and on about the massive crime I committed. He never asked for a bribe and I was too afraid to offer one. I wasn't sure if indeed he was corrupt! I could have gotten myself into even deeper trouble.

After 10 minutes of badgering me he got really agitated and started shouting, pulling out the book and telling me to lock up the bike. He was going to take me to the station. So I subtly asked if we could settle the matter in a 'different way'.. it ends up he did want a bribe.. the funny thing is he ended up just asking for $5AUD.

I guess what I am saying, if they do have a legitimate reason for taking you in.. it could be in your best interest to pay a bribe / fine.. directly. A luxury we don't have in the west.

It's not all bad.

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