To this day, in Spain and other Latin cultures, such rascals enjoy a degree of prestige, according to Spanish sociologist Alberto Moncada.
The current fraud wave, he said, is a survival technique that stems in part from Spaniards' Catholic roots and what he called their belief that God's a softy.
"For Protestants, life is all about merit, about service. We, on the other hand, have the feeling that God is going to forgive us for everything we do," he said in an interview.
In 2010, as Spain's conservative Popular Party was being battered by a corruption scandal ahead of regional and municipal elections, Moncada predicted voters wouldn't punish the party at the polls because of forgiving attitudes toward underhand dealings.
He was right. The conservatives won big.
"The picaro is more a clever guy who is respected than a thief who is scorned. Spain is not Germany," Moncada wrote in the newspaper El Pais.
Perez, head of an agency called Cosmos Detectives, has a list of stories as long as his arm: people whose homes are burgled and inflate the theft report to include virtually everything they own, from clothes to household knickknacks to used razors and shampoo. Some people fake burglaries or muggings altogether.
One man reported his car seats stolen, with no sign of forced entry on the vehicle, and tried to sell them on eBay, offering his cell phone number to prospective customers.
"We called him up and he tried to sell us the seats," said Perez, whose office is overflowing with Sherlock Holmes paraphernalia such as a statue of the fictional sleuth and a coffee table covered with antique magnifying glasses and pipes.
Then there was the clean-cut looking man in his late 20s who reported a euro500 ($670) iPhone stolen in a mugging, and told Perez the first thing he did was call police. But with what phone, if his was snatched away?
During a chat with the man at a coffee shop, Perez concealed his own mobile phone in his pants pocket — with the man's number punched in and ready to be dialed with the touch of a button. When Perez called, the man instinctively reached into his coat for his "stolen" phone and answered it.
"It was one of those moments. His face said, 'Uh-oh. I screwed up,'" Perez said. The detective said he told the insurance company what happened and it's up to them to decide whether to cancel the man's policy.
"Of course you feel sorry for him. But it is a matter of him telling the truth," Perez said. "He said I had to understand, that he was in dire straits, that he was jobless. He said please, I had to understand. I had to understand."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.