The Bulgarian city that thrived on a £200m UK benefits fraud

Sliven, Bulgaria
-Credit: (Image: (Image: Municipality of Sliven website))


Sliven, Bulgaria's eighth largest city, is nestled at the foot of the Balkan Mountains and serves as the administrative and industrial hub of Sliven Province. Known for its location in a region famous for wine production, it has recently gained notoriety for a different reason.

The city is now infamous for its link to a criminal gang suspected of stealing up to £200 million annually from the UK government through fraudulent benefit claims.

On May 5, 2021, Galina Nikolova, 38, her boyfriend, Stoyan Stoyanov, 27, Tsvetka Todorova, 52, Gyunesh Ali, 33, and Patritsia Paneva, 26, were arrested in London. They have all pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering offences committed between October 2016 and May 2021, with sentencing expected soon.

READ MORE: 'Brash, close-knit' criminal gang sentenced after targeting ATM's across the UK

The audacious scam was unearthed by a detective from Sliven, Vassil Panayotov, who grew suspicious upon seeing locals clad in designer attire and a surge in new construction projects. His investigations revealed that thousands of residents were receiving up to £2,500 a month in benefits from the UK, despite many never having set foot in the country.

Inspector Panayotov alerted the UK authorities, leading to the identification of the five Bulgarian masterminds behind the massive fraud, reports the Express.

The criminals are thought to have pocketed a staggering £54 million from their fraudulent activities.

Mr Panayotov revealed to The Telegraph: "I first became suspicious when I started to see the influx of money into Sliven. I wondered how these people had got such money."

He continued, "When I received that information I started to check myself and began my own investigation. I eventually concluded that we were talking about maybe £200 million every year from the UK."

The inspector alleged that the syndicate serviced at least 6,000 clients who each paid a single commission fee ranging from £500 to £800.

In return, they would typically receive between £2,000 and £2,500 monthly for a period of sixty days. After this time, the gang would keep the proceeds, amassing enough wealth to live like "barons".

According to Mr Panayotov, the sudden wealth in Sliven led to a transformation of the locale, with new shops, casinos, and properties emerging.

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