McDonald’s restaurants and the Monopoly board game are two popular brands. When they decided to join forces for a promotion a lot of people were excited — and a lot of people got cheated. So let’s uncover the top 10 untold truths of McDonald’s Monopoly fraud.
Say Uncle Jerry
Jerome Jacobson, also known as Jerry and Uncle Jerry, was a former police officer in Florida who had left the job because of chronic health problems. He had a second career in private security and eventually landed the job that would make him rich — illegally of course. The company he worked for happened to be the company that McDonald’s had hired to provide printing services for the marketing company that was responsible for creating the coveted Monopoly game pieces for the fast food chain’s now infamous promotion. Because of his position with the security company, Jerry Jacobson had intimate knowledge of all the procedures the printing company would be using to securely deliver the game pieces to McDonald’s stores. Jacobson actually became the person who delivered the big money game pieces to McDonald’s. He developed a plan to steal some of the winning game pieces and give them to relatives and friends. His first accomplice was his stepbrother who was given a $25,000 piece. His stepbrother “won” the game, collecting his winnings, and shared them with Jerry. So right from the time the Monopoly promotion was launched in 1987 it was compromised by Jerry’s scheme to steal the prize money. No legitimate winners ever won McDonald’s Monopoly game because of Jacobson’s plot.
The McDonald’s Monopoly game scandal was too big for just one Jerry. Gennaro “Jerry” Colombo was the second Jerry involved with this fiasco. This Jerry was born in Sicily and raised in Brooklyn. This Jerry ran strip clubs and an illegal gambling ring in South Carolina and reportedly had connections to a New York crime family. The two Jerrys were said to have met by accident at the Atlanta airport in 1995. A short time after they first met, Jerry Jacobson decided to give Jerry Colombo a Monopoly ticket good for a Dodge Viper. Colombo later appeared in a McDonald’s advertisement with the muscle car, but took the cash value of the car because he was too big for it. Colombo became the conduit for the winning Monopoly tickets, spreading around one million dollar winning tickets to friends and family. He and Jacobson each would get a certain cut of the winnings, and this system went on without a hitch for a while. The two Jerrys got along well enough that Colombo dubbed Jacobson “Uncle” Jerry, and for a while everyone was happy. Unfortunately for Jacobson, however, the Jerry gang came to a screeching halt when Colombo died after suffering serious injuries in a car accident near the South Carolina/Georgia border.
Cast of McCharacters
Jerry Jacobson was so pleased with his scam, he wanted to keep it going so he had to bring more people into the fold so he could continue to hand out winning tickets to friends and acquaintances. One of these acquaintances was a man named Don Hart who Jerry happened to meet on a cruise ship. Mr. Hart had run a trucking company, but was able to be convinced by Jacobson to become part of the lucrative scam. This informal recruiting process underscores the confidence, or over confidence, Jacobson had in himself and his scheme. He seemed to have banked on greed keeping people in line, and for years it worked. Perhaps one of Jacobson’s more unlikely recruits was a man named Dwight Baker, a Mormon and a real-estate developer. Baker may have been susceptible to the scam because he was experiencing financial difficulties after injuring his back in a tractor accident. When offered such a windfall Mr. Baker could not resist the temptation and so contributed to the spread of the scam.
You Want Fraud With that?
As a former police officer and an experienced security professional, Jerry Jacobson was perhaps the last person people thought would be capable of concocting and carrying out such a devious scam. Whatever his reasons, Jacobson had to put a lot of thought into his little enterprise because the printing company commissioned by McDonald’s to make the game pieces was a secure facility that was known for printing U.S. postage stamps. There was a specific chain of custody for the game pieces, as they were carried in tamper proof envelopes from the printer to the factory where the pieces were supposed to be randomly placed on cups and other packaging. The man trusted with this important job was Jerry Jacobson. A woman assigned to Jerry as an independent auditor was charged with monitoring him to make sure he performed his duties properly. With this extra measure in place, he had to take extraordinary precautions to still be able to pull off this fraud for so long. In fact, he resorted to removing the game pieces from the sealed envelopes while in the men’s room — out of view of the woman charged with monitoring his actions.
Is that Your Final Answer?
In 2000 the FBI’s Jacksonville office received an anonymous tip about a connection between several of the recent Monopoly game winners. The tipster pointed the FBI to an “Uncle” Jerry who turned out to be Jerry Jacobson. An agent named Richard Dent received the tip, but at the time he was busy with other cases and failed to follow up on it. However, Dent’s partner, agent Doug Mathews was intrigued by the note Dent left lying around that read,”McDonald’s Monopoly fraud?” This note was more than enough to whet Mathew’s appetite, and he enthusiastically sunk his teeth in the investigation. The code name for the investigation became “Final Answer,” a homage to the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Names that were rejected include Hamburger and several others starting with ‘Mc.’ The operation quickly grew in scope as wiretaps were secured, and a sting operation was set up using one of McDonald’s marketing executives to help interview prize winners and get them to make incriminating statements. The sting worked, resulting in multiple indictments and convictions in 2001.
2001: A Monopoly Odyssey
The McDonald’s Monopoly game fraud had gone on for more than a decade, but all good things must come to an end. When the game pieces settled, more than 50 people were convicted in 2001 of various charges including mail fraud and conspiracy. All told, Jerry Jacobson and the other crooks were able to steal $24 million dollars from McDonald’s and its customers. Not a single one of McDonald’s actual customers managed to get their hands on one of the winning game pieces. Perhaps the scam could have gone on indefinitely if it wasn’t for an anonymous tip that put the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the trail of the conspirators. After getting a tip about a recent prize winner in 2000, the FBI launched a fraud investigation called “Final Answer.” The aggressive investigation tracked 20,000 phone calls and installed a wiretap on Jerry Jacobson’s phone. Jacobson was arrested in 2001 for several crimes and was convicted at a trial later that year. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison and was forced to pay $12.5 million dollars in restitution. It appears that even after all these years, the identity of the person who provided the anonymous tip to the FBI remains a secret.
Stranger than Fiction
A Hollywood drama based on the McDonald’s Monopoly game scandal is in the works, but HBO decided to produce a multi part documentary called McMillion$. The tag line for the 2020 documentary is “Everyone played it. One man rigged it.” Over the course of 6 episodes, the series lays out the strange series of events that marked Jerry Jacobson’s scheme to defraud McDonald’s, cheat customers, and enrich himself and his buddies. McMillion$ features a lot of quirky characters, though perhaps none was more colorful than one of the FBI agents assigned to investigate the scandal. Special Agent Doug Mathews appears in all 6 episodes of the series and he clearly enjoys his time in front of the camera — maybe a little too much because his obvious enthusiasm borders on giddiness. McMillion$ had a lot of producers, but at least one executive producer stood out: Mark Walberg. The HBO series used a combination of real people involved in the scam or the subsequent investigation as well as actors to re-enact some of the events. The result is an engaging and entertaining look at a wacky case of fraud and eventual justice that is truly stranger than fiction.
A McCanada Scam?
According to Jacobson, it was official company policy that no Canadian McDonald’s customers were to be allowed to win one of the coveted $1 million dollar prizes. After being arrested, the accused criminal cited this alleged Canadian scandal as motivation for hatching his own long running scheme. He described a plan that alleged that his company, Simon Marketing, was responsible for rigging the McDonald’s Monopoly game for its own purposes. Jacobson said his company went as far as to re-run a particular computer program that had a hand in randomly selecting the places he was to deliver the winning game pieces. However, neither Simon Marketing nor McDonald’s will acknowledge these allegations. In 2012 one lucky Canadian man found himself in possession of a McDonald’s coffee cup with a $1 million dollar game piece. So we still don’t know if the Canadian scheme was real or not, but it is interesting that this particular chapter in this strange saga was not mentioned in HBO’s McMillion$ documentary series. We may never know if Canadians got the shaft on purpose or by accident, but in true Canadian fashion, they were too nice to complain about it.
McD’s Damage Control
In 2003 Jerry “Uncle” Jacobson was sentenced to three years in prison and the long, winding scandal came to an end for him and his many co-conspirators. However, for McDonald’s, the heat was about to be turned up. The scandal and trial were out of the headlines, but many McDonald’s customers were left with a bad taste in their mouth about the fast food chain. People wondered what McDonald’s knew and when they knew it. Did the company look the other way? How did Jacobson and the others get away with it for so long? Without the anonymous tip would they have ever been caught? Needless to say, McDonald’s had some work to do. One way the fast food chain dealt with the bad publicity was to come up with an even more dramatic game. This time there was $10 million dollars in instant giveaways that would award cash prizes to 55 different winners chosen at random. This was a little bit of a gamble because after all that had happened, it would be natural for people to wonder just how on the up and up this new game actually was. Had McDonald’s really left the whole thing to chance and picked 55 actual customers at random? Another company faced consequences from the outrageous scandal: Simon Marketing. The company that had entrusted the game pieces to ex-cop Jerry Jacobson had a falling out with McDonald’s and announced plans to close its doors in 2002. Companies, jobs, revenue and lives were destroyed because of a few greedy people who took advantage of what was supposed to be a fun promotion.
Legacy of a Monopoly Scam
“Risk averse” is a phrase you may have heard applied to governments and other institutions. This phenomenon of desiring to limit negative consequences is only natural and has been one consequence of McDonald’s Monopoly game scandal. Companies don’t want to be embarrassed and receive all the negative publicity that the fast food chain endured after the news of the scandal broke. McDonald’s lived by the big, showy promotion and died by the big, showy promotion. McDonald’s and others took stock of what had happened and why. The whole point of promotions like the Monopoly game is to bring in more customers, but the disaster had hurt business, at least in the short term. Whether customers are consciously aware of it or not, they want to trust the companies they choose to spend their money with and McDonald’s took a hit. Going forward many companies decided to forego splashy national promotions and focus more on local and regional campaigns. With the explosion of social media platforms, companies have discovered they can reach a lot of their customers on Facebook, Instagram and others with high volume, and relatively little cost. The Monopoly game promotion at McDonald’s was popular with customers for more than a decade so it’s a shame the whole thing was ruined for everyone by a small group of cheats.