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HomeLatest News‘Bitumen Bandits’ back on Beaches spreading rubble and trouble

‘Bitumen Bandits’ back on Beaches spreading rubble and trouble

A Northern Beaches business is warning locals that the notorious ‘Bitumen Bandits’ are in the area again, allegedly performing shoddy work and cheating customers. The teams of driveway ‘repairers’ knock on doors offering to patch worn driveways with fresh bitumen. However, they typically do substandard work, demand cash payment in advance, increase the agreed charge mid-job, and frequently abandon the work altogether to flee before the repairs are completed.

In the latest incident, a motor mechanic revealed to Manly Observer how the devious team fooled him by claiming they were contractors for Northern Beaches Council.

The scam

Jim (his name changed on request) told Manly Observer, “Two young guys, one with an English accent, approached us and said they were doing a job for the Council up the road, and they had leftover highway-grade bitumen.

“They wanted to know, (a) if we wanted it, and if we wanted it for free, they would just drop it off and we could spread it ourselves; or (b) for a small fee, they could, with their equipment, lay it for us.”

What equipment did they have?

“They just had a truck filled with a tar-like substance, sprayers and loose bitumen. And when I say bitumen, just loose rocks. They dropped a layer of solution, then some rocks, then another couple of layers of solution and rock, like that. But when they spread it out, it was actually quite thin, not even ten millimetres thick.”

They didn’t use a steamroller to compress the bitumen?

“No steamroller, no other equipment, just a broom pushing it around.”

Example photo showing the initial spreading of bitumen. A steamroller then compacts the mix once it is spread evenly. Photo: Freerange

Two men initially approached you at first; how many people arrived to do the job?

“There were six all up. One older guy with an Irish accent, and a younger offsider that did a lot of the talking. The other guys were their employees – an Indigenous Australian, another guy from Nepal and another from England. The sixth man never spoke, so I couldn’t determine where he was from.”

How long did they spend on the job?

“A couple of hours; probably two.”

Did the job look complete when they prepared to leave, or did they promise to return later to apply another coat of bitumen?

“They just said that the solution they used would set properly over the next few days, and it wouldn’t look as loose as what it did. They claimed it came with a four-year warranty and they’d return in two weeks’ time to check that the job was okay. It sounded legit.”

What was the quality of the work?

“There was a lot of mess up the wall from the spray. The guys out the back [neighbours] weren’t happy with that, so, as a ‘goodwill gesture’ – and so they’d get paid – they [the bandit pavers] bought some degreaser to clean the walls down.”

How do they operate?

The dodgy operators commonly consist of a core of Irish or British travellers (sometimes a father-son duo with a relative or two), plus two or more locally-recruited assistants. The latter are usually tourists or unemployed workers who’ve been offered a quick means of income for their labour.

The team deploy scouts to reconnoitre an area, who then assess potential marks and approach them with improbably cheap deals that the target feels unable to refuse. Often, the truckload of bitumen is parked in the vicinity, with the Bitumen Bandits ready to snap into action immediately, before the client has a chance to change his or her mind (or do some research to find out if they are authentic).

Example of a driveway repaving upgrade. Photo: Famartin/Wikipedia

In NSW, you need a minor trade work licence or certificate (Bituminous Surfacing or equivalent) to do any residential building work valued at more than $5000 in labour and materials (including GST). Hence why the Bitumen Bandits often initially quote below this price, then, once they’ve started, they elevate the fee.

Teams of Bitumen Bandits have been active in Australia since at least 2007.

In April 2010, NSW Office of Fair Trading revealed they had issued 14 media releases over the previous three years warning the public about Bitumen Bandits across the State.

A NSW Parliament Q&A dated 14 April 2010 revealed, “Since 2007, NSW Fair Trading has taken enforcement action against fifteen individuals resulting in penalties totalling $22,510.”

As recently as 13 March 2024, Gladstone Police in south-east Queensland warned, “Police are urging Gladstone Region residents to remain wary of the bitumen (asphalt) scam, with information that offenders are operating in the Gladstone area.

“This is a scam that pops up every so often – the fraudsters, known as the ‘Bitumen Bandits’, offer to lay bitumen at what appears to be a great deal however, if a deposit is made, they often don’t commence the work.”

In December 2009, we had our own experience with a team of Bitumen Bandits (see details below).

Outcome

We asked Jim: What is the condition of your driveway now that several weeks have elapsed, taking into account weathering from storms and vehicles driving in and out of your garage?

“Terrible,” he lamented.

“It’s getting worse and worse. It’s literally just loose stones. The stones are coming into my business on people’s feet or on car tyres. They’re also spreading out onto the road because everyone who drives in and out of the driveway is dragging them out.”

What compounded the scam was the fact that Jim’s wife, Jane (name also changed), who was nine months pregnant, went into labour while the scammers were operating and Jim was called away. The couple checked into hospital to welcome the arrival of the new member to their family. However, Jim was unable to properly monitor the Bitumen Bandits, nor challenge them afterwards on their shoddy work.

Jane revealed, “We have photos of the guys involved. The workshop next to us got caught up in it too, but didn’t pay them, as the end result is just loose rocks.”

Screenshot from CCTV footage of the alleged Bitumen Bandits in operation.

Once the Bitumen Bandits began their lacklustre operation, Jim’s next-door neighbours, who share the same entrance driveway and agreed to the bitumen paving extending to their unit, became suspicious. Later that day, their suspicions were confirmed.

Jim said, “They worked out it was a scam; they did a Google search of the pavers’ business name and stuff like that to check if it was legitimate or not.

“They had a weird feeling about the job because they weren’t happy with the finish. When they Google-searched the business name, it came up as some weird hotel in Forbes or somewhere remote. The ABN didn’t match. When they searched further, they found reports on A Current Affair, and some West Australian Government documents that these guys have been named as scammers.”

And the name that the Bitumen Bandits were using?

“Top Coat Pty Ltd [note: several legitimate businesses operate via a similar name]. We want to let people know what they’re doing, because they did a terrible job! The guys out the back [neighbouring business] contacted police. However, the police said it was a ‘civil matter’, there’s nothing they can do to stop the scammers from doing it. So, they keep getting away with it.”

Jane added, “The police or NSW Fair Trade didn’t want to help. We really want to let other locals know about it, so they don’t get caught up like we did. My husband didn’t pay himself last week as we are so tight on finances, yet stupidly we paid to get our driveway done by these scammers.”

Top Coat Civils Pty Ltd was a business name identified by Commissioner for Consumer Protection Trish Blake as representing “travelling conmen” in Western Australia throughout 2023.

“It is the definition of dodgy and a complete scam – it has to stop,” Ms Blake said.

“These con artists posing as tradespeople have a blatant disregard for the law and use completely unethical business practices that prey on innocent people, tricking them into a ‘good deal’ but ultimately charge highly-inflated prices for shoddy work.

“They lie to potential customers, saying they have left-over bitumen from a job nearby so can offer a cheap price but the finished job is left uneven, thin and soft.

“In one case in Derby, the bitumen washed away with rain the next day but the customer was still invoiced $33,000 and demands were made for immediate payment.”

Our experience with Bitumen Bandits

In 2009, this reporter had his own personal experience with Bitumen Bandits when approached by a gang of them outside a Centrelink in Hornsby and asked if I wanted a day’s labouring.

Unaware they were scammers, I accepted and was driven to rural Dural (north of Sydney) with another recruit and set to work to pave a home driveway.

We worked a full day combing gravel with rakes after it poured from a paving machine.

The machine operator was a representative of a company that sold roadworks equipment. I later learned he’d been conned by the gang who claimed they were interested in buying his bitumen laying machine, also known as an asphalt paver. However, they requested he prove its suitability for home driveways.

So, he supplied the bitumen and a day’s labour for free, thinking he was going to make a sale. His machine, with a hopper capacity of six tonnes, retails for around $100,000.

It ultimately took two days to repave the client’s driveway. While we were raking, the gang – an Irish father-and-son and a few cousins – were scooping up shovels-full of surplus bitumen and discarding it in the flower beds behind the garage.

The homeowner refused to pay after inspecting the work at the end of day one and demanded the crew return the next day to tidy up. The following day, the paving machine operator wasn’t needed, and I spent most of my time trimming the ragged edges of the new layer of bitumen with a spade.

An older Irish man, the boss of the crew, asked if I’d like to join them full-time.

“Your job would be to knock on people’s doors and ask if they’d like their driveway resurfaced,” he said, for which I’d be given a commission on top of my paid labour. I declined.

I told friends about the experience, then a few weeks later, when I flew home to the UK, I received a number of messages from those same friends saying ‘Bitumen Bandits’ were in the news for their scam driveway repairs, and were they the people I worked for?

Probably.

What to do if you suspect Bitumen Bandits are operating.

If they submit an invoice, ask for the ABN number of their business and check it at ABN Lookup: https://abr.business.gov.au/

If their paperwork gives a business address, Google search it to see if it is a legitimate venue, not a hotel, caravan park or non-existent location.

To report a scam, call the NSW Department of Fair Trading on 13 32 20.

Further details: https://www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au/trades-and-businesses/business-essentials/business-scams

Be wary, sometimes the Bitumen Bandits use threats of violence to intimidate clients for payment. Call Police immediately on 000 if you feel threatened.

 

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Manly Observer is an experiment in providing non-sensationalist hyperlocal news on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. We cover the big news across the LGA, but with a hyper focus on the Manly electorate encompassing Balgowlah, Seaforth, Freshwater, Brookvale and Curl Curl up to Dee Why. It is run by those living in the community for the benefit of an informed community. We care about an informed and connected community. That’s it. Simple. Thank you for your support in keeping quality local news alive!

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