You got a receipt for that?

When Robin and I lived in Mexico, it took us a while to figure out how things worked. The first time we bought some stuff at an office supply store, the sales person asked us if we wanted a receipt. Being American, I said Hell yes I want a receipt! This caused general laughter in the line and a sigh from the clerk who started on an elaborate piece of paperwork.

It turned out you automatically got a normal sales receipt, but if for some reason you actually wanted to pay the VAT, you had to request an official receipt, which then you’d turn in to your organization for reimbursement. We never made that mistake again.

Looking back, I’m not sure if the clerk was just worried that I was a weird stickler, or was offering to sell me a higher bill for a contribution. I was reminded of this common tax avoidance in Mexico by the excellent article in Sunday’s NY Times about the fake receipt market in China.

The inventive Chinese people use these fake receipts creatively. To embezzle from their companies, to avoid taxes, to create slush funds for bribes and kickbacks, you name it.

It’s easy to roll our eyes at China and Mexico and their “corrupt” practices, but similar stuff happens in the USA.

Consider this recent story of academic officials at UCLA who, when UC changed their travel policy to “only coach” without a medical reason, quickly procured doctor’s notes certifying a medical need to fly first class.

Silly me, the only fake doctor’s notes I’ve worried about in academics are from students who missed exams.

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