How to avoid a traffic “shakedown”

John Wieroniey made a wrong turn while he was driving in Prague recently. He blamed his onboard navigation system, which had directed him to a pedestrian zone.

But the Czech police officer who pulled Wieroniey over didn’t care who, or what, told him to do it. He demanded 1,000 Czech crowns ($44) for the infraction.

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“Is it customary for police in Prague to apply fines and expect an instant cash payment?” asked Wieroniey, a registered nurse from Washington.

Actually, yes. And Wieroniey, like most American motorists driving overseas, paid the traffic fine. But he wonders, “Did I get ripped off?”

It’s hard to blame him, or anyone else who gets behind the wheel of a car beyond our borders, for thinking so. The cliche of the corrupt foreign cop spotting an American driving in a rental car, and shaking the tourist down for a bribe, endures. And at no time of the year is this more of an issue than now, when visitors head south to warmer climes in countries that don’t always have a reputation for running squeaky-clean governments.

Wieroniey didn’t get scammed, according to the Czech government.

“Czech Republic police may impose and collect on-the-spot fines up to 5,000 crowns for traffic offenses,” says Pavla Velickinova, a spokeswoman for the Czech embassy in Washington. They’re required to offer an official receipt on a printed, numbered paper bill. The police station must keep a copy for official records. In other words, all on the up-and-up.

It’s not always that way, and travelers like Wieroniey are right to ask if they should pay the fine or contact their embassy. And if they don’t settle up right away, what are their options? Turns out there are answers to those questions, too.

When do you fork over the cash vs. dialing up the embassy? Security experts say that depends on where you are. If you’re visiting a country known for having a stable, corruption-free government, then a random traffic stop and an option to pay a fine might be acceptable. If the traffic stop is legit, the police office will offer a receipt and the option to pay later, if you prefer.

Experts say that in some countries, the traffic stop might not be legit. Mexico and Russia are among the hot spots for American tourists, they say.

“You have to use your best judgment,” says John Rendeiro, vice president for global security and intelligence at International SOS, a company that provides security services for international business travelers. “Keep your safety in mind first and foremost.”

In other words, if you’re pulled over in Cancún and asked to pay a fine, you might suspect you’re being asked to pay a bribe, but the most expedient thing to do might still be to settle up and to take up the issue with the American Consular Agency in Cancún later. They won’t be able to give you a refund, but they can send word through official channels to warn others.

“Pay the fine,” advises Robert Siciliano, a security expert. “I paid in Mexico. Have $100 bills in hand. They like that.”

Why should you pay up? Because if you don’t, you could get hauled into jail. That’s where you get to call the embassy, and it might be a while before you get your visit or you’re able to get yourself bailed out. Not worth the trouble.

You can easily avoid the shakedown, legal or not. Rendeiro advises against driving in countries where corruption is a known problem. Odds are the driving conditions aren’t the safest either. On his last visit to Haiti, for example, Rendeiro hired a driver familiar with the ins and outs of local driving customs.

But some visitors have found creative ways around the fines. Susan Stirling, a retired marketing director in Toronto, used to own a villa in Acapulco, Mexico, and she’s familiar with the drill: The police pull her over, ask for her license, and tell her if she doesn’t pay now, she can pick up her license at the police station in a few days.

A few years ago, her daughter decided enough was enough. “She bought 15 fake licenses – mass-produced, poor quality licenses can be bought for under $10 for a dozen – and that trip, every time we were pulled over, my daughter simply handed over the license and said she would go to the police station to pay later,” Stirling remembers. “Bye bye!”

Stirling stopped visiting Acapulco but says if she came back, she probably wouldn’t use the fake-license trick. It’s too risky.

If you’re driving across the border, have a few greenbacks ready just in case – or don’t drive at all.

Are "pay now" traffic fines a scam that target tourists?

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How to avoid a traffic shakedown

Obey the country’s driving laws. Familiarize yourself with these by dropping by the embassy’s website for suggestions or read up on the State Department’s driving tips site.

Use mass transit or hire a driver. That’s particularly true for left-hand traffic countries, where one wrong move can result in a serious accident. Taking the train may be a safer choice.

Steer clear of corruption. The State Department publishes a list of countries where corruption is a problem. Check its alerts and warnings page for the top offenders.

39 thoughts on “How to avoid a traffic “shakedown”

  1. This one for me is a “can’t answer” largely because that depends on what does the actual law that applies, say… IF as it is, in some countries, fines can be levied and paid “on the spot”, then so long as the amount is supported by the law and all the other “admin” parts (receipts, etc) are followed, then it’s all legit and allowed.. IF however, the law does not provide for that, or the full and proper process was not followed, then no, it’s not allowed.

    I also think there is a measure of “personal accountability” here.. As a tourist in a foreign country, the onus of knowing what is law, either traffic or otherwise, falls on you.. not on the national government.. Yes, I do think the governments can and perhaps should point out issues that tend to be problematic with visitors.. However, in the end, that issue falls to you as the tourist to know.. and comply with.. shifting the blame to technology like a GPS issue, to me, doesn’t measure up.

  2. In Germany they weren’t a scam. I used to keep a moderate amount of marks, then euros on me in case I ever got pulled over as it was easier to pay on the spot than deal with the hassle of going into pay it later.

    1. I once got pulled over in Germany and the Polizei gave me two choices: Pay right now or pay later. If I had chosen to pay later the fine was five times higher. Easy call for me to pay right there….and they gave me a stamped receipt which I kept as a souvenir and it currently resides in my scrapbook.

  3. Sometimes the symbol on the road sign is incomprehensible if you’re not from the country. Before you go, Google “[name of the country] road signs” and look for a site that actually shows pictures. Some of them will also give you a basic vocabulary for car repair that you can print and bring along just in case.

  4. I believe you at least used to be able to pay speeding tickets on the spot in Montana. However, due to the unimaginably vast potential for corruption, I can see why this is not done in most US states.

  5. “I paid in Mexico. Have $100 bills in hand. They like that.”

    This sounds like incredibly stupid advice. Does this guy honestly think that if he pulls out 5 $100’s, the cop will be satisfied with one? No, he’s going to take them all. And maybe shoot you in the head if he thinks you have more.

    Better advice. Don’t travel to Mexico, or Russia, or anyplace else with a questionable government.

      1. Actually, you are at a 500%+ greater risk of getting murdered in Mexico according to statistics than you are the US. But thanks for playing the anti gun game. (and almost twice as likely in Russia)

        1. Depends where you go in Mexico. It’s absurd to categorize the whole country as dangerous. The so-called Mayan Riviera is extraordinarily safe. So is Oaxaca. So is San Miguel de Allende. So are loads of places. I have more of a chance of getting beaten up in Brixton than I do in large parts of Mexico City. You paint with a very broad brush.

          1. It is called “discrimination” – which, by the way, is the main reason you are here, as well as I. If our ancestors were so high-browed and progressive to investigate every time a crashing sound through the bushes was coming in their direction before running … none of us would be here today. DNA makes us discriminate because it is infinitely more economical and safer to do so that investigate on case-by-case basis.

            Remember that.

          2. I’m afraid I don’t understand the relevance of this comment. (And I live in the UK, by the way.)

          3. It was about “Not all areas of [place country name here] are bad …”

            I do not have time or energy to investigate which are bad and unsafe parts of XYZ country, so I discriminate with extreme prejudice 🙂

          4. Wait, you claim that I am painting with a broad brush and yet you did exactly the same thing and painted the entire US as dangerous. And the stastics are from the most recent year available (2012) crime statistics. It would probably be noteworthy that some countries probably report these more accurately than others.

          5. “And considering all the guns in the U.S., I’d be more afraid of getting shot in the head THERE.”
            Sure looks like you painted with a broad brush. As for the source, just ask google. The net is filled with all the reported numbers. Just pick one. United Nations stats are available for your viewing as well.

          6. Gun violence is quite prevalent in the U.S., as you know.

            As for Googling crime statistics, that’s exactly what I did. I cited one source. I would like to see yours. The “500%” source.

          7. LMAO, I actually read your cited source. First of all, it only looks at Canadian people travelling to other countries. BUT, in it they show stats that say the murder rate of Canadians in Mexico per 100k overnight visitors is .268 while in the US it is .048. YOUR OWN SOURCE backs up my assertion. (in fact the difference is more than 500% higher.)
            People in the US know how dangerous central American countries can be. Sure, there may be safer areas, but as a whole, just as you clearly pointed out in your initial response, Mexico is far more dangerous than the US. Have a nice day.

          8. Careful what you wish for, Jack. He’s like Beetlejuice… say his name three times and he will appear. Nobody wants that. 🙂

    1. There are so many “questionable” governments.
      Many countries seem to thrive on graft & corruption, & in some, very dangerous driving situations.
      Have driven throughout Western Europe & a long while ago, Yugoslavia & escaped a possible serious incident by not stopping to see some guys making a bear do tricks. Turns out from the hotel mgr. in Dubrovnik advised if I had stopped, I would have been stripped of my money & all else & left there. Gypsies! Who would have known about this?
      In countries where there is rampant corruption, or high crime, either go in a small group with a very knowledgeable local guide, or hire a personal one as we did going through Northern Thailand. In Mexico everything seems to be mostly corruption, & some sporadic violent crime thrown in. In China – DON’T DRIVE! It seemed to me that they get on the highways with a death wish, & in India, in spite of the chaos, I never saw a single case of road rage. Unreal! Travel safely by reading everything you can get your hands on BEFORE you go. As a Canadian currently driving through several states in the West, no evidence of corruption, but a degree of caution with some pretty scary drivers.

    2. If you are caught with a large sum of cash in the US, you could be suspected of drug dealing and have your cash seized. It’s not uncommon.

      Questionable governments can be anywhere.

    3. Good advice; don’t drive. In fact, with a large, interesting world, why go to places where, in addition to local bandits, you have to deal with corupt police.

      1. Indeed. But Americans get very upset when you point out the emperor is wearing no clothes. In fact, I’m surprised that your comment has even been allowed to stand; that’s how touchy they are about that sort of thing.

  6. Most civilized countries accept and use Credit Card machines because the fine is very high. Try speeding in the Swiss and the German Tunnels and you will remember the fine for the rest of your life.

  7. Many years ago I was driving in Romania when the line of cars I was in was pulled over for speeding. The speed limit in the “town” (not sure it was a town, just a building or two on the side of the road) went from 100km/h down to 60km/h without warning. The policeman went to each car, and finally got to me. He didn’t speak English, and unfortunately I didn’t speak Romanian. And to make things so much better, I apparently had left my passport back at my rented apartment. We tried to communicate, I showed him my OK drivers license, but after a few minutes he went back to his car with my license.

    At this point, I was starting to wonder exactly what the inside of a Romanian jail looked like, and how soon I would get to see it. Then another policeman got out of the car and came to me. I think it was a supervisor (more “stuff” on the uniform), but really, couldn’t tell for sure. He didn’t speak English either. I pointed to a few things on my license, he filled out some form. I signed something, and he gave me a copy.
    So, I think I either got a warning, or there’s a warrant out for my arrest for unpaid ticket(s) somewhere in Romania. I don’t know… but I didn’t have to pay any money at least.

    Lessons learned: Always make sure your passport is with you. And be very careful when driving…

  8. I had clients in PVR get pulled over by the local police for too many people in their vehicle…which of course is a joke. My client said that they were on the way to the airport, could he pay the fine there. The police office took out a pair of white gloves before ‘accepting’ the fine.
    My own kids were in Costa Rica and had stopped at a well know site to look at the wildlife. They were the only ones there and a police man asked for their passport,s then asked for all their money to get their passports back. They reported this in town at the police station. The the police officer was arrested and the exact amount of US currency as the kids said was taken from them was found on the officer.
    In Cabo, there are warnings not to pay police anything and ask to be taken to the police station. Too many tourists have been shaken down by police on the street. There are notes you can get to carry with you, in English and in Spanish that you present to the ‘officers’ should language be an issue.

  9. In former communist eastern Europe in July 2000. As soon as crossed border from Germany into chec rep hookers everywhere. Autobahn closed so we went through a ski resort. Brothels everywhere. Girls running in front of car with nothing but g strings on. Truck drivers pulling over everywhere. In Prague stayed at a Hilton. Lobby full of hookers.

    Driving past bratislava missed a 130 km/h sign. Kept driving at over 200 kmh. Saw in far distance guy with a round European stop sign. Got closer & saw he had a sub machine gun & was in army type uniform. Anyway thought better stop. He wanted deutschmarks but gave him chec currency which was worthless outside chec anyway. No receipt. Think we handed over about $30 worth. Not sure what would have happened if didn’t pay or had no cash but sub machine gun loaded or real or not convinced us to pay & get the hell out of there.

    Hint-Don’t carry all cash in wallet or same place. This dodgy “cop” wanted to see inside my wallet. Think he had done this many times before.

  10. I thought this would be about traffic shakedowns in rural America. Like when I got a ticket for going 56 in a 55 zone in South Hill, Virginia….

    For all the corruption in traffic cops — the rural American south is the worst I’ve seen in the world.

  11. My company does business on every continent with exception of Antarctica. US subsidiary is a hub for business in North America and gives support also to South America to some extent. I understand doing business everywhere.

    That said, after travel advisories for certain areas in Mexico in 2007-2008, I personally requested that, if they still want to send US personnel there, to have a lawyer on retainer and phone number given to everybody traveling there and kidnapping insurance for up to $5 million. They didn’t like it, but faced with people refusing to go … they opened full-blown sub-subsidiary in Mexico with local people employed.

    All of that to say … why would you want to go there? I mean, even for business purposes, you can avoid harassment or just refuse to go (especially if there is travel advisory by State Dept). Going there (wherever that is) because it is “cool” and then complaining about corruption is just sheer stupidity, in my book.

    I have my personal list of countries where I will go and want to visit – and that is because it is a LOT shorter than a list of countries where I wouldn’t go if they paid me (quite literally). Make your own list and stick to it. With help of lawyers if it must be.

    Disclaimer: I was born in a Second-and-a-half World country that was a communist first, then socialist regime after that. I know corruption. I know also that I never want to see it again nor do I want to feed it with my tourist dollars. Best tool for corruption extinction is to make it die of hunger. Do these people a favor and stay as far away as possible and don’t feed the monster.

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