Overall Crime and Safety Situation
U.S. Embassy Sofia does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The ACS Unit cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED SOFIA AS BEING A MEDIUM-THREAT LOCATION FOR CRIME DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Please review OSAC’s Bulgaria-specific webpage for proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information.
Bulgaria is a relatively stable country with few specific threats targeting American citizens, businesses, or organizations. It is estimated that nearly 80,000 U.S. citizens visited Bulgaria in 2016. Located strategically as a gateway between the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, Bulgaria is one of the key exterior borders of the EU.
Illegal migration and smuggling have challenged Bulgaria’s law enforcement authorities. Similarly, Bulgaria has struggled with housing/caring for the increasing number of asylum seekers and refugees. In response to the migration crisis, the country has witnessed a political backlash from ultranationalists.
The Ministry of Interior (MOI) crime statistics show a 6.62% decrease of all registered crimes in 2016 compared to 2015. 46% of cases were resolved in 2016, compared to 42% in 2015. According to the MOI, since 2000 the majority of incidents involving U.S. citizens were economic crimes (ATM skimming, credit card fraud, theft, robbery, motor vehicle theft). The volume and the type of reported incidents suggest that Americans are not being targeted as a nationality.
The registered number of murders decreased by 2.5% (to 155) in 2016 compared to 2015.
Thefts from homes and non-violent burglaries remain the most frequently registered property crimes. Burglaries predominantly occur during the night; however, 25% take place during the daytime, according to statistics from security companies. Multiple break-ins have been reported while the tenants were home. Burglaries of homes are more often perpetrated by professional criminals. Thefts from adjacent buildings (attached garages, storerooms) and thefts with no element of burglary are more often conducted by opportunistic criminals. While professional criminals almost exclusively look for valuables with a quick turnover, the non-professionals steal anything they can use, trade, or resell.
Reported robberies decreased by 14% in 2016 compared to 2015 and were concentrated mainly in Sofia. Other cities with high rates of robberies are: Burgas, Plovdiv, and Varna. Targets of armed robberies were financial institutions, gas stations, retail stores, and restaurants.
Organized crime groups exert a strong influence in some bars/nightclubs and control a great deal of the prostitution business. Special attention should be paid to drink prices at high-end bars and nightclubs, as there have been instances of visitors being charged exorbitant prices (several hundred dollars), and in some establishments, the management may use force to secure payment.
Europe’s open borders and uneven patchwork of vehicle databases make car theft relatively easy. The MOI registered 2,789 car thefts in 2016, with the majority of them being stolen in Sofia. Less than 9% of stolen vehicles are recovered. Car thieves target new luxury cars, various models of SUVs, and older cars that are usually dismantled and sold for parts. In the last few years, the main markets for the stolen vehicles have been the Middle East, Albania, Kosovo, Russia, and Georgia.
A trend of vehicle lock jamming emerged in 2013, with thieves using radio frequencies to block the victim’s key fob. Jamming leaves a car unlocked despite the owner pressing the lock button. When the driver walks away, criminals steal contents/valuables. In some cases, criminals have stolen vehicles using devices that mimic an electronic key. These incidents have been prevalent at shopping centers, gas station convenience stores, and school drop-off areas. A scam involves a suspect(s) puncturing a victim’s tire. While the driver changes the tire, the suspect(s) burglarizes the vehicle.
The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by criminal elements and by hate groups remains a challenge for law enforcement. The MOI registered 27 IED attacks in 2016, compared to 20 in 2015.
A continuing trend of anonymous telephonic bomb threats has impacted OSAC constituents. In 2016, 286 telephonic bomb threats were registered. Bomb threat calls were directed at schools, shopping malls, court houses, airports, railway stations, and large office complexes – some including private American businesses. The police have handled these disruptive threats in terms of the initial public safety response and the follow-up investigation.
Document fraud is a challenge and impacts OSAC constituents when hiring and conducting due diligence. The majority of fraudulent documents are university diplomas, electronic payment documents, and identification documents. According to U.S. law enforcement, genuine blank Bulgarian passports, including biometric data customized to specification, can be purchased on the black market for 250 Euros. These are primarily used to gain access to other EU countries. Authorities disrupted a major document fraud ring in November 2015. Fake identity documents of people with Arabic names were among the pieces of evidence discovered by the police. Open sources reported multiple cases throughout the year involving ISIS fighters and a wanted Russian mobster who travelled in the EU on fake Bulgarian passports.
Some 56 financial crimes and 31 crimes against the banking system were registered in 2016. According to U.S. law enforcement, Bulgarian criminals have a significant role in debit/credit card skimming-related fraud throughout the world. Bulgarian transnational organized criminal groups manufacture skimming devices and send their teams to other countries to skim credit cards. These groups send the proceeds back to their Bulgarian bosses. ATM skimming in Sofia, Varna, and Burgas has increased several-fold. Criminal groups install skimming devices not only to test the devices but for profit. Criminal groups target high-volume ATMs, usually around tourist areas or shopping centers. Numerous police operations against criminal groups dealing with skimming fraud were conducted worldwide in 2015. It is estimated that Bulgarian criminal groups operating worldwide steal more than 50 million euros (including 8 million BGN domestically) on an annual basis. Be wary of skimming devices placed on ATMs. Take actions to protect your PIN, although that does not eliminate the risk. U.S. citizens should use ATMs inside trusted banks and similar institutions only and limit use of credit cards to trusted retailers and institutions. Closely monitor your bank statements for anomalies. Privacy information should be destroyed by shredder or similar destruction method.
While Bulgaria is not a major regional financial center, money laundering remains a concern. The law has statutes to address financial crimes, but American and European experts have identified weaknesses in the legislation. Improvements, including closing a loophole in financial laws regarding cash transaction reporting, have been made recently.
According to the January 2017 European Commission Cooperation and Verification Mechanism report, official corruption remains a serious challenge in Bulgaria. According to the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2016–2017, corruption is rated as the most problematic factor when conducting business in Bulgaria. Cases of corruption aimed at draining public money and EU funds are common. Inefficiency and corruption within the judiciary are considered a major stumbling block for investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption and organized crime. Americans are most likely to encounter corruption at state-run medical facilities and dealing with traffic police.
Europe’s southeastern region poses significant cyber threats to the U.S., Canada, and the rest of Europe. The Bulgarian Computer Emergency Readiness Team registered 737 cyber incidents for 2015. The largest number of those incidents involved malicious code, followed by fraud, attempted unauthorized intrusion, and information reaping. Ransomware attacks were the most aggressive cyber-attack tool for 2015.
Overcharging by taxi drivers, poor road conditions, and aggressive driving are the most frequent road risks faced by Americans.
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Road conditions are generally underdeveloped, aside from some of the main roads and highways that have been renovated or constructed over the past few years. Secondary roads are often poorly maintained. The government continues the construction and renovation of highways and roadways, including main boulevards and some secondary roads in the larger cities. This process causes heavier traffic and could lead to more road accidents. In some cities, late at night, traffic lights blink yellow in all directions, leaving right-of-way unclear and contributing to accidents.
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 creates numerous hazards. Motorists should expect delays at border crossings.
Travel conditions deteriorate during the winter, as roads become icy, and potholes become larger. Traffic difficulties are experienced even more on small streets in Sofia, where the snow is not cleared. Cars have been reported stolen when drivers leave their vehicle with the engine running during cold weather. Rockslides and landslides may be encountered in the mountains and Black Sea area.
Aggressive driving habits, the lack of safe infrastructure, and a mixture of late model and older vehicles, livestock, and animal-drawn carts on the roads contribute to road accidents and fatalities. In 2015, the Bulgarian road police registered 7,225 serious car accidents with 708 deaths and 8,971 serious injuries.
Motorists should avoid confrontations with aggressive drivers. Violent altercations are not unheard of, some including the use of firearms to threaten drivers.
All drivers are obliged to observe local traffic laws, which in some cases are different from those in the U.S. Bulgarian law allows Americans to use their U.S. driver’s license for up to one year; however, an international driving permit is recommended. Drivers operating motor vehicles must obey the signals given by traffic police officers. All fines for traffic violations are paid either electronically or via wired bank transfer. The Bulgarian Traffic Law is available online. For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”
Avoid leaving valuables in plain view, especially in cars with foreign license plates, and exercise caution while stopping at gas stations, motels, and roadside restaurants. Visitors should insure their cars against theft with one of the major international insurance companies.
Public Transportation Conditions
There have been several fires on trains over the past few years.
- In December 2016, a container train carrying flammable chemicals derailed in the town of Hitrino killing 5 people and injuring over two dozen.
Criminals do operate on trains.
Intercity buses are newer, frequent, relatively fast, and comfortable. Sofia has a modern, clean, and relatively safe Metro.
It is recommended that travelers use official taxi companies (OK Supertrans in Sofia; Trans Taxi in Varna; and Eko Taxi in Burgas).
Airline transportation is reliable, and there have been no registered airplane accidents in the past 30 years. The national carrier, Bulgaria Air, is in compliance with the safety standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization. There are few reports of thefts, scams, ATM skimming, or pickpocketing at the four major airports (Sofia, Plovdiv, Burgas, Varna). The biggest problem is related to “rip-off” taxis. They usually have an accomplice inside trying to lure travelers to the vehicle. Some of their logos are designed to look like other companies (CK versus OK). Official taxi companies have desks inside the arrival terminals, and it is recommended that taxis be ordered at these desks.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED SOFIA AS BEING A MEDIUM-THREAT LOCATION FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
Bulgaria does not provide safe haven to terrorists or terrorist groups. Migration of asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere through Bulgaria to points north and west and continuing deportations of people considered to be national security risks continue to raise the country’s counterterrorism profile. In response to perceived increased threats, the government of Bulgaria has worked to enhance its prevention and enforcement tools, including by criminalizing foreign fighters, developing a new counterterrorism strategy, enhancing operations of its National Counterterrorism Center, and announcing plans to draft a comprehensive law on measures against terrorism.
There is a new five-year government strategy and action plan for countering violent radicalization and terrorism approved by the Council of Ministers in December 2015. The strategy aims to strengthen and optimize interagency coordination in combatting terrorism. It spells out mechanisms for improved cooperation with civil society, business organizations, local communities, and religious leaders. According to the action plan on the strategy on countering radicalization and terrorism, the government will have a national program for members of extremist groups to disengage, de-radicalize, and rehabilitate.
There are several small political parties and organizations with anti-American views. Most active are the ultra-nationalists from the political party ATAKA, the nationalists from the youth organization BNS, and skinheads. Occasionally, anti-U.S. protests are organized in front of the U.S. Embassy and in other parts of the country. Anti-U.S. propaganda frequently appears in media, social media, and other electronic formats.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED SOFIA AS BEING A MEDIUM-THREAT LOCATION FOR POLITICAL VIOLENCE DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Bulgaria’s population is generally peaceful. Since the democratic changes in 1989, there have been several non-violent transfers of government power. On January 27, 2017, Bulgaria’s caretaker government assumed office, with parliamentary elections being planned for March 26, 2017.
Bulgarians occasionally hold demonstrations to protest or advocate specific causes. In 2016, several large demonstrations took place in protest against migrants. Some political parties and organizations, particularly ultranationalist groups, have hired protestors from local soccer fan clubs who have been violent on occasion. Most neo-Nazi and extreme right groups are associated with soccer fan clubs and publicly demonstrate their associations during soccer games. These groups do not differentiate between police, opposition groups, and innocent bystanders.
Past election cycles have seen protest activity, localized violence, blocking of main roads and government buildings, and minor security incidents (arsons, vandalism acts, provocations, explosions) in/around political party offices, election events, politicians, etc.
Religious violence is not widespread, but in 2016, several incidents targeting Muslims and Christian missionary groups occurred. The Grand Mufti of Bulgaria issued a statement with the National Council of Religious Communities in Bulgaria condemning the Paris attacks in January and November 2015. The Grand Mufti has been a voice of tolerance and moderation, but he has complained that the government of Bulgaria is not a strong enough partner in this effort.
U.S. missionaries have been targets of harassment and assaults. They have been physically assaulted and threatened directly and indirectly. The Embassy received approximately 61 incident reports from missionary groups in 2016.
Human rights organizations continued to report police and civilian vigilante violence (assaults, beating, humiliation) against migrants and asylum seekers at the country’s borders.
- In June 2016, charges of xenophobia-motivated attempted murder were brought against two men who attacked and stabbed an asylum seeker returning to a refugee center after a trip to the grocery store.
There have been several disturbances at reception centers housing migrants as well.
- On November 24, police fired water cannon and rubber bullets at rioting migrants in a reception center near Harmanli. Camp residents threw stones and tires at police, broke windows, and set fire to furniture. Over 400 asylum seekers were arrested after the clash.
Bulgaria is in a seismically active area. The last significant earthquake occurred on May 22, 2012, and registered 5.8. Its epicenter was 15 miles from Sofia, close to Pernik.
Flooding primarily occurs during the spring and winter months. Floods are more likely in smaller villages and towns due to insufficient infrastructure to handle heavy spring rainstorms and winter runoff. In November 2016, heavy rains washed away bridges and buildings in Bansko.
Cold weather and sizable snow fall can cause serious transportation problems, floods, and electrical outages. In case of heavy snowfall, roads may not be plowed or salted and can be extremely dangerous or closed to traffic. January 2015 also saw an avalanche that claimed two lives on Mount Vitosha.
Forest/wildfires are more likely in mountain areas during the summer. During 2015, 145 forest fires were reported. Wildfires were concentrated in Sofia, Haskovo, Sliven, Yambol, and Razgrad. Hot weather can cause serious transportation and health problems.
Bulgaria is in the process of modernizing and rebuilding its aging, critical infrastructure. Progress has been slowed by funding problems, lack of transparency in tendering, and multiple elections and government transitions over the past five years.
Bulgaria is also bolstering its cyber capabilities in order to protect government information systems from external attacks.
Financial systems are at risk of being compromised due to internal issues of corruption and mismanagement of funds.
Counterfeit and pirated goods are widely available on the local market. Websites that allow free illegal downloading of software are accessible from Bulgarian IP addresses despite almost a decade of efforts to disrupt these operations. Music revenue per capita is U.S.$0.40 compared with U.S.$2 in Croatia and U.S.$14 in the U.S., and Bulgaria ranked 66 out of 128 countries on the International Property Rights Index in 2016.
Alcohol and tobacco products are frequently counterfeit. According to a survey by the Center for the Study of Democracy, every fifth cigarette in Bulgaria is illegal, and cigarette smuggling is more profitable than smuggling narcotics. In 2016, over 83,000,000 cigarettes were confiscated without excise wrappers or with fake excise wrappers. Several companies, including OSAC constituents, have reported difficulty when seeking recourse for patent and trademark infringement at the Bulgarian Patent Office.
Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) crimes are a challenge for officials and the private sector. OSAC constituents using security offices, investigations, and disruption programs have had limited success in detecting, deterring, and disrupting criminal efforts. They have used the information gathered during these efforts to develop stronger countermeasures. Those constituents relying on courts or a legal department-centric strategy to protect their brand express frustration with the lack of speed, effectiveness, and outcomes of their efforts. There have been a number of significant IPR investigations, including some in concert with other EU countries. The MOI and the Customs Service continue to combat contraband garments, shoes, cosmetics, and other products bearing counterfeit trademarks. According to a report by the European Commission in 2015, 1,282,130 counterfeit goods were seized in Bulgaria.
ATM skimming, computer hacking, and other electronic intrusions are a risk. American businesses should contact their corporate security headquarters or consult with the RSO about specific issues and countermeasures.
Personal Identity Concerns
Concerns about the rise of xenophobia, racism, and extreme nationalism have been expressed by Amnesty International, Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Jewish organization Shalom, and others. Harassment of minorities by skinheads and neo-Nazis has been reported throughout the region, including in Bulgaria. The media widely reported incidents of assaults and harassment of refugees and asylum seekers.
- In May 2016, a member of a high-profile Latin musical act suffered what was considered a racially-motivated attack in downtown Sofia, with the event garnering widespread media attention. The perpetrators were not apprehended.
- In August 2015, there was a fight between skinheads and Roma in downtown Sofia.
The MOI reports that drug-related crimes are rising. Drug abuse and addiction continue to climb, and the age of first-time drug users is dropping. Bulgaria is a gateway country for the transit of illicit drugs and contraband. Bulgaria serves as a major transshipment point for heroin from Southwest Asia along the Balkan Route to Europe. Organized crime groups are heavily involved in drug trafficking. Heroin and synthetic drugs are the primary drugs transported through Bulgaria, principally via overland methods, including Transports Internationaux Routiers (TIR) trucks, passenger vehicles, buses, vans, and small trucks. Small amounts are smuggled by air. Varna and Burgas are used as entry points for controlled substances, including cocaine, that are smuggled into the Balkans, Greece, and Western Europe. In 2015, the Ministry of Interior, National Customs Agency, and State Agency for National Security reported that 620.2 kg of heroin, 90.5 kg of cocaine, nearly 38 tons of marijuana, and 27,907 pills of synthetic drugs were seized. In June 2016, there was a shootout between rival organized crime groups at a restaurant in Sunny Beach. The incident left one dead and one seriously wounded.
Kidnapping was primarily used between rival criminal groups for ransom or because of unresolved financial dealings. The Impudent gang was accused of at least 13 high-profile abductions in 2008-2009. There were no significant kidnapping incidents in 2016.
Bulgarian police assets are plagued by a lack of resources and low pay compared to Western European counterparts. However, they are competent and are willing to assist in emergencies.
The MOI has launched an outreach campaign targeting crimes against tourists, allocating additional resources/training for officers on the Black Sea coast and in winter resorts during tourist seasons.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
Traffic police officers are not allowed to issue on-the-spot fines or accept cash for any reason for minor traffic violations due to modifications in the Traffic Act. Per the law, requests for spot fines are a form of extortion. As of January 2017, changes in Bulgarian traffic law now allow police officers to confiscate the driver’s license if the suspected party tests positive for alcohol. Also, if the suspected driver refuses to use a breathalyzer, the driver may lose their license for two years and be fined 2000 BGN.
In cases of lawful police detention or police harassment, U.S. citizens are encouraged to contact the American Citizen Services unit in the Consular section at the U.S. Embassy for advice and assistance immediately. The ACS emergency number is: (+359) 2 937 5101 or by e-mail.
Crime Victim Assistance
A U.S. citizen who is a victim of crime should call the National System for Single European Emergency Call Number (NSSEECN) at 112. It is accessible throughout Europe on all phones and can connect callers with emergency services. It is also highly recommended that all U.S. citizens report security incidents to the American Citizen Services unit in the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy.
The Ministry of Interior is the primary law enforcement body in Bulgaria, encompassing the National Police Service, Border Police, Fire and Civil Protection, Migration, and Chief Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, and overseeing the 28 regional police directorates and over 180 police stations. With more than 55,000 employees, the Ministry oversees a vast mission of law enforcement, national security, public order, fire safety, border security, immigration, and traffic enforcement. Most interactions American citizens have with law enforcement will be with MOI employees.
The Bulgarian customs administration is a centralized administrative structure, organized within the National Customs Agency (NCS) under the Minister of Finance. NCS counteracts the contraband channels of different goods, drugs, etc. It is also responsible for collecting all duties and excises paid to the state budget.
The National Investigative Service (NIS) is the investigative arm of the Prosecution Service, which is part of the Judiciary. It works with the Ministries of Interior and Justice to carry out investigations.
The National Protection Service (NSO) provides protective security to Bulgaria’s national leadership including the president, prime minister, and visiting government dignitaries but does not conduct criminal investigations.
The State Agency for National Security (DANS) is a domestic security agency with investigative responsibility, but since February 2015, it has no law enforcement authority. It coordinates closely with intelligence services and law enforcement agencies depending on the nature of the investigation.
Medical providers are trained to a very high standard, but most hospitals and clinics, especially in rural areas, are not equipped or maintained to Western standards. Basic medical supplies and over-the-counter and prescription medications are widely available, but highly specialized medication and/or treatment regimens may not be.
Not every hospital/clinic is equipped to care for pediatric patients. If you are in need of emergency services for an infant/child, please call ahead to ensure those services are available.
In the event of a medical emergency, call 112 to request an ambulance. Dispatchers are unlikely to speak English, and this service will not transport a person to a private hospital. Ambulance service can be slow; in large cities it may take 30+ minutes for a response. If there is a medical emergency in Sofia, it may be quicker to call a taxi or ask a friend or colleague to drive you to a hospital.
Contact Information for Available Medical Services
You can find a list of hospitals and physicians on the U.S. Embassy’s website.
Available Air Ambulance Services
Since March 2014, air ambulance services are available from Heli Air Services Company.
Another air ambulance company is International SOS:
Geneva: +41 22 785 6464, Fax: +41 22 785 6424
Frankfurt: +49 61 023 588, Fax: +49 61 022 02644
Serious medical problems requiring hospitalization and/or medical evacuation to the U.S. may cost thousands of dollars. It is imperative that U.S. citizens have enough cash (or access to cash) to cover a medical emergency. Most doctors and hospitals expect immediate cash payment for services rendered.
Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
The 2016 Air Quality in Europe report by the European Environment Agency cites Bulgaria as having the highest levels of airborne particulate matter (PM) among the 28 EU member states, exceeding EU health recommendations. According to the document, pollution is directly attributed to nearly 14,600 premature deaths in Bulgaria.
Tuberculosis continues to be a serious health concern.
The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Bulgaria.
OSAC Country Council Information
The Bulgaria Country Council currently meets four times a year and has approximately 50 members. Please contact OSAC’s Europe team with any questions or to join.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
U.S. Embassy Sofia
16 Kozyak Street
Sofia 1408, Bulgaria
The Consular Section is open 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, Monday-Friday, except on American and Bulgarian official holidays.
Embassy Contact Numbers
Emergencies: +359 2 937-5101 (via the U.S. Embassy Duty Officer)
U.S. Citizen Services Unit (during business hours):
Telephone: +359 2 937 5100
Fax: +359 2 937 5209
Websites: http://bulgaria.usembassy.gov, http://sofia.usembassy.gov
General e-mail: email@example.com
Be aware that body language norms differ from those in the U.S. Shaking one’s head side-to-side means “no” in the U.S., but it means “yes” in Bulgaria. Conversely an up-and-down nodding in the U.S. means “yes” while it means “no” in Bulgaria. Even people living in Bulgaria for years may not pick up on subtle changes in body language that could provide warning of hostile intent. Understanding and acknowledging this limitation is important for all travelers and expatriates.
Before doing business in Bulgaria, American companies should check with the U.S. Embassy’s Foreign Commercial Service (FCS) office and American Chamber of Commerce regarding the business environment and opportunities in Bulgaria. To contact FCS, please email Office.firstname.lastname@example.org.
U.S. citizens should enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), so that the Embassy can keep them up to date with important safety and security announcements and help families and friends get in touch with registered U.S. citizens in an emergency.
Bulgaria Country Information Sheet