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Bulgaria 2012 Crime and Safety Report: Sofia

Europe > Bulgaria > Sofia

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Threats

The U.S. Department of State rates Bulgaria HIGH for overall crime. However, according to Bulgarian Ministry of Interior (MOI), over the past year most categories of violent crime saw significant statistical decreases to include homicide by nine percent, robbery by 13 percent, kidnapping by 29 percent, and sexual assault by 28 percent. The statistics recorded a four percent increase in the number of residential burglaries throughout Bulgaria. The majority of crimes that affect the American and international community is non-violent in nature. 
   
Over the past several years, there had been many reports of third-country national drivers being robbed on the Thracian Highway (A1/E772). The highway stretches east to west from Sofia to Plovdiv to Stara Zagora before ending. The suspects, posing as police officers, pull the unsuspecting victims to the side of the road using emergency lights and then rob them. A complicating factor is that some of the suspects who have been arrested conducting these crimes have been actual police officers. The vast majority of the robberies occurred at night. Travelers should use special caution when traveling at the eastern most end of the highway near Chirpan and Stara Zagora. Although a series of arrests all but eliminated this threat in the past year, it is prudent to use caution when traveling, especially at night.       

ATMs are readily available in major cities. However, bankcards, debit cards, and credit cards should be used with caution due to the potential for fraud or other criminal activity. There have been numerous instances where travelers have reported that their credit cards have been stolen or "cloned." Therefore, limit your use of credit cards to hotel bills or other major vendors. Be wary of skimming devices placed on automated tellers. Limit the use of ATMs to those located inside major institutions such as banks or major malls. Even using these precautions, however, you are not eliminating your risk. Therefore, closely monitor your bank statements for anomalies. 

Burglaries of residences continue to be a significant problem. There have been several burglaries of residences occupied by foreign citizens, to include Americans. There have been a number of cases of burglaries of homes inside guarded compounds housing foreign diplomats. Many of the groups responsible for burglaries are becoming sophisticated. Some groups are reportedly even using jamming equipment in an attempt to circumvent alarm systems. Persons who plan to reside on a long-term basis should take measures to protect their dwellings, including installing window grills, solid doors with well-functioning locks, and an alarm system that alerts an armed response team.

While traveling by taxis, trams, and the metro is generally safe, exercising caution is essential. When using forms of mass transit, be particularly wary of pick pockets. Taxi drivers may overcharge unwary visitors. In 2011, Bulgarian authorities began to enforce a law capping the maximum amount taxis can charge per kilometer (1.30 Lev) in Sofia. However, these rates are determined by municipalities and vary from city to city. Therefore, remain vigilant particularly around tourist areas, airports, and train stations. Use reputable taxi companies with cars that have meters and clearly marked rates displayed on a sticker on the passenger side of the windshield and on the right rear backseat window. Be certain that the price is .57 or so and not 5.57. By law, you will be responsible for paying the advertised price, unless it is in violation of an established price cap. Avoid using taxis without a meter. 

One should also be wary of a scam that has been reported throughout Bulgaria. The scam involves suspects puncturing the victim’s tire. They approach the driver to offer their assistance. While the driver is occupied with changing the tire, the suspects burglarizes the vehicle.

Road Safety

Traffic poses the greatest danger to visitors in Bulgaria. Aggressive driving habits and a lack of safe infrastructure increase the danger of driving. Some passenger bus drivers have been viewed as particularly aggressive in their driving, especially at night. Following the fundamentals of driver and pedestrian safety has never been more important. Ensure that seat belts are worn and that you drive defensively at all times. Avoid confrontations with other drivers. 

Some of the Bulgarian road system remains underdeveloped. Roads may be in bad repair, adding to the hazard. Driving at night outside of major cities poses an increased risk. Heavy truck traffic along the two-lane routes from the Greek border at Kulata to Sofia and from the Turkish border at Kapitan Andreevo to Plovdiv presents numerous hazards. Motorists should expect delays at border crossings depending on the time of day.
  
If driving, strictly obey traffic regulations and carry your registration and license with you. Remember to keep your windows up and doors locked. Bulgarian law allows drivers to use a foreign license for up to one year. However, an International Driving Permit is recommended. An English translation of Bulgarian traffic laws can be found at the following Ministry of Interior site:   http://www.mvr.bg/en/RegulatoryFramework/default.htm

Political Violence  

Regional Terrorism and Organized Crime

While there is no significant indigenous terrorist threat, Bulgaria continues to be plagued by organized crime. Over the years, there have been attacks between various factions on the streets of Sofia to include numerous shootings and even an attempted RPG attack against an automobile. In September 2008, two adult entertainment establishments were the target of locally manufactured improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Small devices have detonated usually with the intent to send a message rather than injure someone. However, in February 2012, an IED detonated under a vehicle in Varna, killing the occupant. Maintaining situational awareness is essential. While the authorities continue to confront some factions of organized crime aggressively, they are hampered by the enormity of the problem and by an ineffective judicial system in dire need of reform. 

International Terrorism or Transnational Terrorism

The threat of transnational terrorism remains high. Bulgaria is not exempt from the threat of terrorism due to its support of US/NATO efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The threat primarily involves suspects transiting Bulgaria for other parts of Europe. Travelers are urged to review the State Department's latest "Public Announcement-Worldwide Caution" (available at http://travel.state.gov) that alerts U.S. citizens to remain vigilant and reminds them of the continuing threat of terrorist actions that may target civilians.

Civil Unrest

The Bulgarian population has been peaceful. However, there was a series of violent demonstrations in 2011, stemming from a fatal traffic accident in a village outside of Plovdiv. Ultra-nationalists took advantage of the circumstances and rallied groups throughout the country to demonstrate against the Roma population. Some of these demonstrations became violent. Within a few weeks, these demonstrations stopped. Demonstrations to protest or advocate particular causes are often held. While these protests are generally peaceful, avoid any area where a demonstration is taking place. Such events, where emotions may run high, can quickly become unpredictable and potentially volatile.  

Post-Specific Concerns

Bulgaria is a seismically active region. In the event of an earthquake remain calm. 

Do not…
Panic and start running. 
Run outdoors if inside 
Use an elevator
Rush to the doorway if in a crowded place. 

Do…. 
Stop, drop, and hold. Roll into a ball and cover your head. Remember that the single highest cause of injury is from inside walls collapsing. 
Stand or crouch in a strong supported doorway, the inside corner of the room, or under a sturdy table or desk. If near a bathroom, get inside the bathtub and protect your head. Remember that falling non-structural objects cause 50 percent of deaths and injuries. 
If outside, move into a clear area away from trees, signs, buildings, or downed electrical wires and poles. 

For further information, review the Earthquake Preparedness Guide at the embassy website: http://bulgaria.usembassy.gov/

Unusually large snowfalls in the region, contributed to severe flooding in southern Bulgaria in January and February 2012. As a result, the government has begun to examine and evaluate the 600+ dams throughout the country. Preliminary reports have noted that as many as 10 dams are considered to be in poor condition. Be cognizant of this fact in your travels or when identifying locations for operations. 

Industrial and Transportation Accidents

The number of motor vehicle accidents in 2011 increased slightly to 6,638 over the previous year’s 6,610. Despite an increase in the number of accidents involving injuries – 8,300 from 8,079 -- there was a significant decrease in the number of fatal accidents in Bulgaria – 657 in 2011 from 776 in 2010.  
In 2008, there were 8,045 accidents with 1,061 fatalities and 9,952 injuries. 
In 2009, there were 7,068 accidents with 900 fatalities and 8,675 injuries. 
In 2010, there were 6,610 accidents with 776 fatalities and 8,079 injuries. 
In 2011, there were 6,638 accidents with 657 fatalities and 8,300 injuries. 
Despite this generally positive trend, traffic accidents remain a significant danger; therefore, extreme caution should be used on the roads of Bulgaria. 

Kidnappings 

The MOI reports a 29 percent decrease in the number of reported kidnappings and unlawful imprisonments over the past year (90 to 64). This is a considerable decrease over the 142 reported kidnappings in 2009. In December 2009 and January 2010, police made numerous arrests of subjects suspected of being responsible for many of those kidnappings. The MOI also reported a 17 percent increase in the number of these crimes offenses being solved by the police.  

Police Response

The quality of police assistance varies, and although the situation may be slowly improving, criminals are generally undeterred by law enforcement efforts. While the embassy continues to enjoy excellent support from the authorities, the police have yet to earn the trust and respect of the average citizen. The police, like many facets of society, continue to be plagued by corruption. Inadequate salary is among the many reasons that the police often continue to draw the wrong candidates for the profession. The average salary for a uniformed police officer is about $500 per month. The response time for police to an accident or crime scene is not up to western standards and may be considerable depending on the location. It is difficult to find English-speaking officers at most police stations, especially in rural areas of the country. Traffic police often explicitly or implicitly solicit money to avoid a traffic citation. An offender offering or paying such a bribe may result in the officer arresting him. If a police officer solicits a bribe, report it immediately through the Ministry of Interior’s website. 

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

Call the Embassy at 937-5100 (in country, but outside Sofia 02-937-5100) and request to speak with American Citizens Services. During non-working hours, ask to speak with the embassy duty officer. 

Where to Turn to for Assistance if you Become a Victim of Crime, and Local Police Telephone Numbers

The nationwide telephone number for all emergency services is 112. The number can be dialed on landline or cellular telephones for any emergency. Furthermore, this number has English-speaking operators readily available. For further information, please visit the embassy website at http://bulgaria.usembassy.gov/ and review “Help for American Victims of Crime in Bulgaria.” 

If you are the victim of a crime, in addition to reporting to local police, please contact the U.S. Embassy Sofia for assistance. Although the investigation and prosecution of the crime is solely the responsibility of local authorities, consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and find an attorney if needed. For more information about services for American citizens overseas, log on to the Bureau of Consular Affairs website at http://travel.state.gov.  

Medical Emergencies

Most Bulgarian doctors have been trained in Bulgaria and may not provide medical care comparable to western standards. Additionally, many hospitals and clinics are generally not equipped and maintained to western standards. 

Contact Information for Local Hospitals and Clinics

In the event of an emergency, call 112. English-speaking operators are available at this number, which should be used for all emergency needs including police, fire, and ambulance services. The response times of ambulance are dependent upon traffic conditions and may take 35 minutes or more. In the event of a real emergency in Sofia, you may be best served by calling a taxi and asking to be taken to Pirogov Hospital. Pirigov treats adults and children and is designated for trauma and emergency cases. 

Prominent hospitals and clinics include:

Specialized Hospital for Emergency Medicine “Pirogov”, (or “Pirogov” only)
21, Totleben Blvd., phone: 915-4411, 915-4290.
Military Medical Academy
3, St. Georgi Sofiyski Blvd., phone: 922-6000; 922-5731, http://www.vma.bg

A more detailed list of prominent hospitals, doctors, and clinics can be found on the embassy website: http://bulgaria.usembassy.gov/hospitals4.html

Air Ambulance Service

There are no air ambulance services. These services are available in neighboring countries. 

INTERNATIONAL SOS - Geneva    - # +41 22 785 6464, FAX + 41 22 785 6424
                                          Frankfurt - # +49 6102 3588 100, FAX +49 6102 202644

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

A few common sense precautions can greatly reduce your vulnerability to a criminal. 

Maintain a low profile. Dress down, use alcohol sparingly, and avoid disputes. Remember, as with anywhere in the world, the incidence of crime in Sofia is in direct proportion to the lateness of the hour and the amount of alcohol consumed. 

Do not engage strangers in conversation. Many street crimes and scams begin with a stranger approaching the victim and engaging them in conversation. If approached, ignore the subject and quickly walk away. A simple question on the street maybe a prelude to a crime: “What time is it?” should be interpreted as meaning “What kind of watch do you have?” Beware of the diversion. Pick pocketing is often preceded by a diversion in the form of an argument or fight. If you see a commotion near-by, protect your valuables and evacuate the area quickly. 

Avoid clubs advertising adult entertainment. Patrons have been presented with enormous bills and intimidated into paying them. Furthermore, there is considerable crime associated with such establishments.  

Safeguard your bag when in cafes or restaurants and while using public transportation. 

Limit your use of credit cards to hotel bills or with other major vendors. Be wary of skimming devices placed on automated tellers. Only use ATMs inside major institutions such as banks or major malls. 

Use caution if you discover a flat tire. This could be the prelude to the scam where apparent good Samaritans burglarize your vehicle as you make repairs. Do not leave items inside your vehicle in unattended and in plain sight. 

Persons who plan to reside in Bulgaria on a long-term basis should take measures to protect their dwellings. These may include choosing an apartment above the second floor and the installation of window grilles or blinds, sold doors, and good locking devices. A residence should have an alarm system from a reputable company that continually monitors the alarm and dispatches a response team in the event of an activation. 

Further Information

Embassy Contact Numbers

U.S. Embassy Sofia
16, Kozyak Yulitzat (street)
Sofia 1404
http://bulgaria.usembassy.gov/ 
Regional Security Officer +359 2 937-5316
Embassy Operator +359 2 937-5100
Medical Unit +359 2 937-5112
Consular Affairs +359 2 937-5182
Political/Economic Section +359 2 937-5252
Marine Post One +359 2 937-5200. 

For further information concerning entry requirements, travelers should contact the Embassy of the Republic of Bulgaria at 1621 22nd St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008; http://www.bulgaria-embassy.org tel. (202) 483-5885 (main switchboard (202) 387-7969, or the Bulgarian Consulate in New York City.

Visa applicants should go to the following links.

State Department Visa Website: http://travel.state.gov/visa/index.html
United States Visas.gov: http://www.unitedstatesvisas.gov/
U.S. Embassy, Sofia, Bulgaria: http://sofia.usembassy.gov/

For the latest travel and security information, Americans traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department of State’s web site at http://travel.state.gov. Up-to-date information on security can also be obtained by calling toll free 1-888-407-4747. 

American citizens visiting Bulgaria are encouraged to register at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy Sofia and obtain updated information on travel and security within Bulgaria. 

OSAC Country Council 

Bulgaria does not have a Country Council. However, there is a very active American Chamber of Commerce. The AmCham in Bulgaria was established in 1995. The AmCham may be contacted at telephone +359 2 9769 565, e-mail: amcham@amcham.bg; for more information, log on to their website at www.amcham.bg. The U.S. Commercial Service may be contacted at telephone +359 2 939 5784. For more information, log on to their websites at http://www.usatrade.gov or http://www.buyusa.com.

The Regional Security Office stands ready to provide support as needed. The RSO can be reached at +359 2 937-5100, 5316, or 5312 or via e-mail at: RSO_Sofia@state.gov. For more information and announcements about security overseas, log on to the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) website at http://www.osac.gov.