Scammers posing as a local contractor are targeting Juneau flood victims

the Mendenhall River
The Mendenhall River eroded about 50 feet of bank in just a few hours, stopping barely short of a house on River Drive in Juneau, Alaska following a glacial outburst flood on Saturday August 5th, 2023. (Mikko Wilson / KTOO)

Scammers are targeting Juneau homeowners as they deal with property damage from August’s record glacial outburst flood along the Mendenhall River.

At least one person in the Marion Drive neighborhood has lost more than $50,000 after paying fraudulent bills sent by someone posing as a local contractor, according to documents shared with KTOO. 

Dave McKenna — who also lives on Marion Drive — didn’t fall for the scam, but he said it was convincing at first. McKenna hired a local contractor to rebuild eroded land and armor the riverbank on his property. When the work was nearly complete, he and his wife got an emailed invoice from someone claiming to be their contractor.

“And there was just enough detail for things to be really plausible,” McKenna said. “None of it was really raising super red flags.”

McKenna later realized it was an imposter. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, these kinds of scams are more common after disasters, as bad actors impersonate contractors, building inspectors or state and federal agents offering aid. 

And that’s been true after the flood. The Juneau Police Department confirmed to KTOO that it’s received several reports of fake invoices that were sent to homeowners dealing with flood damage.

Scammers stole more than $50,000

One homeowner found the invoices plausible enough to pay some of them. The resident did not want their name published and did not want to be quoted, but they shared emails and receipts with KTOO that show how the scam worked.

The imposter contractor exchanged emails with that homeowner for several weeks, answering questions about the work being done and pushing for quick payments. 

The first request was for an advance of $10,500. The imposter claimed that payments via check would not be possible and asked for payment via three different payment systems — Zelle, then Venmo and ultimately a direct wire transfer.

The homeowner wired the $10,500 payment to an out-of-state bank. 

The second payment request, for $43,810, came with a fake invoice that was marked with the real contractor’s address and logo. This time, the homeowner wired the money in two payments to a local Wells Fargo account under the name J&J Ventures. 

The emails show that the fraudster then sent a second invoice listing services like landscaping and permitting — work that the real contractor hadn’t done. The homeowner stopped making payments, but by then, they had lost $54,310.

Ways to spot a scam 

Lieutenant Krag Campbell with the Juneau Police Department confirmed that there is at least one open investigation into flood repair scams. And the department posted a warning about scam attempts on their Facebook page late last month. 

Though imposter scams or phishing attempts come in many forms, Campbell says they have one major thing in common. 

“Generally, for scams, people will want you to make quick decisions. They have like a sense of urgency on it,” Campbell said. “In those cases, it’s always best just to slow down and talk to a trusted person.”

And according to the Federal Trade Commission, payment requests via wire transfer are a giveaway for scam activity. 

Campbell declined to share details on the local flood repair scam investigation, but he said people who suspect scam activity should call the Juneau Police Department. 

Alerting the neighborhood

According to McKenna, at least nine of his neighbors on Marion Drive got emails from the imposter. In his case, the timing of the invoice and the amount requested closely matched the real work being done on their property. 

McKenna says the request for a wire transfer raised his suspicions because that differed from the payment method he had discussed with the real contractor, in-person. But with online payment methods like PayPal, Venmo and Zelle becoming more common, he didn’t think much of it.

What ultimately tipped McKenna off was the language of the email. McKenna is a personal friend of the real local contractor, and he said the message just didn’t sound right. 

“He’s always been kind of a man of few words,” McKenna said. “And when we got a request for payment from the fake imposter, we realized that, you know, that’s a really wordy message.” 

McKenna called the contractor, who said he hadn’t sent out any invoices yet. After that, he alerted the neighborhood — along with the local branch of the FBI.

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