Car thefts in Bulgaria were among the most notorious crimes of the crime-ridden 1990s and early 2000s and are frequently discussed in media as evidence of the inability of Bulgarian governments to combat organised crime. Despite a decline in vehicle thefts over the past few years, the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior still ranks vehicle crimes among its top priorities for crime prevention.
What do numbers indicate?
The Ministry of Interior reports a steady decline in car thefts over the past two decades, with a slight peak between 2013 and 2015. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021 contributed to an additional drop in car thefts because of the restrictions on the movement of citizens and other logistical obstacles both within the country and abroad. Since the beginning of 2022, there has been a tentative increase in theft rates, possibly due to the lifted COVID-related restrictions.
In 2021 the number of motor vehicle theft has reached an all-time low (Figure 1). Even though car thefts have decreased, detection rates (crimes that are “cleared up” by the police) remain relatively low. The average theft detection rate through the years is approximately 13%.
* The figures for 2022 are not conclusive. There may be differences. Data from 2004 to 2021 is derived from the Ministry of the Interiors annual bulletin, while data for 2022 comes from their monthly bulletin.
Source: Ministry of Interior
The dwindling number of motor vehicle theft offences in the past decade also resulted in fewer sentenced offenders. Effective and suspended sentences dropped significantly from 340 in 2004 to 192 in 2021 (Figure 2).
Source: National Statistical Institute
Despite the declining number of stolen vehicles, their average value continues to rise. While the average price of a stolen vehicle in 2005 was 3,100 Euros, the average price in 2019 was 10,000 Euros.
How does the stolen vehicle market function?
Since the 1990s, when car thefts in Bulgaria peaked, this crime has been predominantly organised. In the 1990s, most vehicle thefts were committed with the knowledge and often with the permission of the organised crime groups known as “grupirovki” (e.g., Vasil Iliev Security, Security Insurance Company). Today, however, most auto thefts are committed by small, fluid groups that operate as criminal networks. In any case, the complexity of the crime necessitates using specialised knowledge, logistics, and expensive equipment that are not easily accessible, thus necessitating the presence of accomplices and facilitators.
Currently, most vehicle thefts in Bulgaria are committed by small groups of two or three criminals who typically operate locally. The most outstanding car thieves have been active since the 1990s. In addition to car theft, certain groups engage in criminal activities such as drug trafficking, card skimming, and robbery. At least 10 to 12 criminal groups of 30 to 40 individuals are involved in MVTs in Sofia alone. These groups are usually embedded in more extensive criminal networks, where they have access to various facilitators who provide equipment, technical expertise, document forgery, and fencing stolen vehicles or vehicle parts.
The fencers (“resellers/middlemen”) are essential. These individuals order vehicles of particular brands and models, negotiate quantities and prices and find buyers for stolen vehicles or vehicle parts. Typically, fencers are legitimate owners of auto salvage yards, used-car dealerships (car yards) and auto repair shops and may operate with two or three groups of car thieves. In the last years, fencers most often place orders for auto parts of high-end vehicles, a tendency exacerbated by the supply-chain problems during the COVID-19 pandemic and immediately after it.
Among the essential facilitators are those who sell equipment to thieves for unlocking and starting keyless vehicles. Some tools, including jammers, are available freely on the Internet. Nevertheless, some locksmiths specialise in selling more sophisticated tools, such as relay attack stations, reprogramming tools, and the infamous “Nintendo Gameboy Device.” Typically, Russian and Ukrainian criminal organisations develop the software for these tools, while their Bulgarian counterparts only modify freely available devices and install hacking software. The cost of the tools ranges from 5,000 to 30,000 euros, depending on the brands and models they can hack.
The mechanics who operate so-called “chop shops” – typically car yards or garages where stolen vehicles are disassembled – are also significant facilitators. The auto parts from stolen vehicles are subsequently sold on specialised Bulgarian and international online marketplaces. The so-called knockers or car fitters are closely related to the mechanics, who disguise the car by modifying the engine number, chassis, and other parts of the stolen vehicle and hiding the vehicle markings, data, and other identifying characteristics. In addition to document forgers, corrupt police officers facilitating stolen vehicle registration are essential facilitators of car theft rings.
Often, car theft networks operate locally because transporting stolen vehicles over greater distances increases the likelihood of police detection and apprehension. Mobility is also hindered by the need to rely on trusted facilitators. Despite this, numerous car theft gangs from the countryside travel to Sofia to commit car theft because the city offers a greater selection of vehicles of specific brands and models. For example, perpetrators from Pernik, Montana, and Vratsa have to regularly travel to Sofia. During the summer months, groups based in Sofia frequently operate at the seaside. Typically, in such instances, groups negotiate with and utilise the services of local facilitators for storage or disassembling the stolen vehicle.
Since the country acceded to the EU, car theft has shifted from targeting mass-market vehicles to high-end and keyless automobiles, mainly due to the profit, risk, and money invested in equipment. Several Bulgarian criminal groups have obtained the infamous “Nintendo Game Boy” device, allowing them to unlock and start a number of keyless vehicles quickly. According to representatives of the Ministry of Interior, nowadays, high-end KIA, Hyundai, and Mitsubishi models from 2014 to 2020 are the most frequently stolen vehicles.
There are at least three potential outcomes for a stolen automobile. Most vehicles are disassembled and sold for spare parts on the domestic market or exported to nearby nations such as Serbia and North Macedonia. The vehicle could be “cloned” and sold with new documents abroad or in Bulgaria. In this case, the VIN, engine, and license plates are changed to match those of a legitimate vehicle. If the vehicle is exported abroad, it is typically shipped via the ports in Burgas or Varna or smuggled to Greece or Turkey, from where it is transferred to the Middle East or former Soviet countries. A practice that is nearly extinct today is ransom-seeking.
Vehicle crime in Bulgaria has decreased significantly over the past two decades, and it is no longer a significant criminal threat as it was in the 1990s. Numerous factors contributed to this, including the economic growth and the substantial increase in household income before and after the country‘s accession to the EU, the new technological advancements in vehicle security, and the various administrative measures taken by the Bulgarian government to curb the market for stolen vehicles.