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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bulgarian Car Owners Alarmed to the Teeth

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Even the humble Trabant is not immune from Bulgaria's car thieves.

The far from environmentally friendly little car is no longer made in former East Germany but spare parts are in demand to keep Bulgaria's Trabbies on the road.

A Lada may attract only jokes in Western Europe, but here it is more often than not fitted with a car alarm, though they do not always prevent theft.

The alarms are frequently ignored as even the vibration of a passing tram can set them off, and sophisticated young Bulgarians know how to neutralize them from a distance.

More than 10,000 cars disappear from Bulgaria's streets each year and some are re-exported. Car thefts make up one-fifth of all reported crime.

Organized groups, often working with gangs in Western Europe, modify their appearance, change the license plates, scrape off engine and chassis numbers and engrave new ones to match forged documents, police say.

Police said in June they were looking for 51,400 stolen cars, all luxury makes such as Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Porsche.

A recent check of 10 luxury vehicles in the Danube river port of Silistra showed that six had been stolen in Germany, France and Italy.

In 1996 some 12,200 cars of the 1.7 million registered in Bulgaria were stolen. Few are recovered.

Thieves are skilled at disguising or dismantling stolen cars, and in one case investigated by police, a four-wheel-drive Opel Frontera was found to have been stolen and re-sold four times in the last three years.

Theft of radios, tires, gasoline or batteries from parked cars is so commonplace in Sofia that most people don't even bother to report them.

One remedy is the sticker of certain powerful -- some say mafia-run -- insurance companies, which can serve as a territorial marker warning car thieves to stay away.

When the government tried to ban the stickers earlier this year, saying they could hinder drivers' vision, the insurers hit back with a version that sticks on the back of the rear view mirror.

"I prefer to have an insurers' sticker to keep thieves away," said engineer Roumen Velchev, who drives an Opel. "Even if my car is stolen, my insurers will find it quickly or replace it with another one."