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Originally published Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 12:53 AM

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Hard economic times sharpen Spaniards' sneaky side

Leather seats are disappearing from cars. Precious jewels are vanishing from drawers. TVs are spirited out of homes in the dead of night.

Associated Press

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MADRID —

Leather seats are disappearing from cars. Precious jewels are vanishing from drawers. TVs are spirited out of homes in the dead of night.

These crimes are not what they seem. And the perpetrators are not the usual suspects.

The culprits are everyday Spaniards reporting thefts of valuables, then filing bogus insurance claims. The scams vary but they share an often slapdash nature and a pressing goal: scrape together a few extra euros as harsh economic times bite.

"What we have noticed because of the crisis is domestic, amateur fraud. People who are not criminals, who have a lightbulb go off in their head and attempt fraud that is small in monetary terms but above all stupid," said Javier Fernandez, who represents a federation of Spanish insurance companies.

It's all a sign of increasing desperation in Spain as unemployment creeps up toward 23 percent, austerity measures sting and officials forecast economic gloom for years to come.

The targets of all this sneaky creativity do not stop at insurers. Sloppily forged monthly passes are cropping up on Madrid buses. Once upstanding citizens are taking part in Internet swindles that seek fees for non-existing services or products. In one case, police say, a man faked his own kidnapping in a botched attempt to secure ransom money from his own brother.

Other older, tried-and-true scams are also on the rise, like going through someone's mailbox, grabbing a bank statement and using the account number and a fake ID to get cash from a teller, said Madrid lawyer Jose Ramon Ventura, who has defended both victims and perpetrators of fraud.

"This kind of thing is on the rise across the board," he said. National Police confirm petty fraud cases have shot up in the crisis, but have no specific figures.

Fernandez said that in 2010, the last year for which his association UNESPA has complete numbers, fraudulent insurance claims rose 16 percent from the previous year, and most were amateur jobs.

Spaniards have a long, rich and colorful history of ripping each other off. Indeed, the con artist - the rascal living off his wits, cutting corners with sly, artful flair - is an archetype of Spanish culture. It is met not so much with disdain as perhaps a hint of amusement and even begrudging respect.

But today's crushing economic crisis is spawning a new breed of reluctant scheister - one more likely to inspire pity than admiration.

"What has emerged are fraudsters acting out of need," said Jose Antonio Perez, a private investigator who sniffs out fraud for Spanish insurers and says his workload has fattened by up to 45 percent since the crisis began a few years ago with the collapse of a real estate bubble.

The head of a National Police anti-fraud unit in Usera, a gritty working-class neighborhood of Madrid, said a typical scam on the rise there is for people to report their wallets or purses stolen in a mugging and claim they held euro300 ($400) or euro400 ($530) - the maximum amount usually covered for such robberies under Spanish homeowners insurance policies.

But when people come to the police to make a report, it often raises eyebrows because "these days there are not many people walking around Usera with euro400 on them," the official said.

And as lots of these people are absolute beginners when it comes to criminal cheating, they can't go through with it once they are being questioned in a police station and making a signed statement that they can be prosecuted if it's proven they're lying.

"In the end, they break down and tell us they made it all up," said the plainclothes police official, who asked that his name not be used, for security reasons.

Spaniards have a word for - and long-standing fascination with - this kind of roguish character: 'picaro.' A genre of literature known as the picaresque novel is generally credited as having arisen in Spain with an anonymous 16th-century work entitled "Lazarillo de Tormes."

It traces the life and adventures of a poor, hungry boy named Lazaro who is on his own and gets by the best he can. At one point, taken in by a mean clergyman, he secretly gnaws on stored loaves of bread to make the priest think there are mice at work, then gets those pieces of bread all to himself.

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."

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