The tarmac scam is a confidence trick in which criminals sell fake or shoddy tarmac (asphalt) and drivewayresurfacing. It is particularly common in Europe but practiced worldwide. Other names include tarmacking, the asphalt scam, driveway fraud or similar variants. Non-English names include “Truffa dell’asfalto” (Italian), “Teerkolonne” (German) and “les faux bitumeurs” (French).
The paving is in fact often simply gravel chippings covered with engine oil, or not the right depth and type of materials to form a lasting road surface. Milk has been used to make a fake sealant.
The conmen may target elderly, vulnerable residents, and claim to be official contractors working on roadworks to add credibility. Reported escalation has included increasing the cost, claiming that the job has required more material than expected, and making threats.
Irish crime reporter Eamon Dillon, an expert on the gangs involved, interviewed a builder who worked with a gang who said that they had custom-built lorries which could never do a proper job: “a proper tarring lorry will have sixty jets, our tar lorries have eight”. In another case, the equipment was rented in Romania and then never returned. Another gang used a lorry with Highways Agency branding.
Tarmac fraud is particularly associated with the Rathkeale Rovers and other gangs from the Irish traveller community. The organiser of the scheme may lead a gang of low-paid workers, or human trafficking victims. Cases have been reported since the 1980s.
The relative mundanity of tarmacking may have made it a low priority for law enforcement. Dillon has estimated that the scheme may earn up to $140m a year and that in 2010 there were 20 gangs active in Italy alone, earning €2 million a week.