How the mastermind behind £16.2m McDonald’s McMillions Monopoly scam was busted

For years, McDonald’s made the dreams of its customers come true with the massively popular Monopoly promotion that saw many win big with massive cash prizes.

But in 2001, the global fast-food giant was left feeling more of a clown than mascot Ronald McDonald after it was discovered the promotion had been hijacked by real-life hamburglars.

Since the promotion was kickstarted in 1987, grimacing mastermind Jerome P. Jacobson managed to scam $20million (£16.2m) out of the company.

The scam became infamous in the US and rights to turn it into a blockbuster were snapped up by stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, while HBO signed onto creating a documentary miniseries.

HBO’s six-part series was overseen by Hollywood trash talker Mark Wahlberg and first aired in the UK on Sky Documentaries earlier this week.

In a previous interview with Fox News, the Hollywood A-lister said: “I didn’t know any of the details and the nuance until we met with the filmmakers and started to hear the intimate details of what happened and how fascinating it was.



“And then it was like one of those things where it just sounds so farfetched and unreal.”

The brazen McScam exposed huge flaws in the Monopoly promotion’s security that exploited the system at the time.

During the promotion, each customer would get two stickers when they bought food from McDonald’s.



How the mastermind behind £16.2m McDonald’s McMillions Monopoly scam was busted

Each sticker would represent a space on the popular Monopoly board game, with one or a set of stickers being able to be turned in for increasingly-lucrative prizes, depending on their rarity.

But, there was a problem.

US laws forbid a company from directly managing its own promotions, over fears it could be exploited – so McDonald’s brought in a third-party to help.

This is when subcontracting company Simon Marketing swooped in to handle the promotion and organisation of the game.

Simon Marketing’s internal procedures were flawed, however, with Chief of Security Jerome P. Jacobson being able to remove the top game pieces, which he passed on to associates who would redeem and share the winnings with him.

Over the best part of a decade, Jacobson and his associates hoovered up the winnings that were worth upwards of £16.2m.



How the mastermind behind £16.2m McDonald’s McMillions Monopoly scam was busted

Bizarrely, even the US healthcare became implicated after St Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Tennessee received an anonymous letter containing a winning sticker that was worth $1m.

It was later indicated that Jacobson had sent the letter.

At first, Jacobson circulated the winning game pieces with his family and mates before a chance meeting with Gennaro “Jerry” Colombo – leader of an infamous New York mobster family – at Atlanta Airport.

The random run-in took the fraud to the next level. Colombo was able to distribute the game pieces to a wider network of associates before he died in a traffic accident in 1998.



How the mastermind behind £16.2m McDonald’s McMillions Monopoly scam was busted

Struggling single mum Gloria Brown was one of those pulled into the scam and the then 39-year-old became a household name after she won a top prize after supposedly buying a Happy Meal.

She told reporters: “Hopefully my son and I can live the kind of life I dreamed of.”

Ms Brown had in fact mortgaged her home to buy the winning ticket from the Colombo family for £32,000 and agreed to pay £41,000 every year afterwards.

And the fraud would have continued to net the scammers even more cash if it wasn’t for rookie FBI agent Doug Matthews.

In 2001, the junior agent worked for the FBI’s division in Jacksonville, Florida, when he received a tip-off from someone that the Monopoly game was a scam.

Believing the claim to be more interesting than the healthcare fraud he had been working on, Special Agent Matthews started digging.

During the investigation, he found that three of the winners were related – the odds of which were one in 300 trillion.



How the mastermind behind £16.2m McDonald’s McMillions Monopoly scam was busted

By connecting the dots and establishing the existing connections, he also learned the Colombo crime family was involved.

Between 1995 and 2000, Jacobson and his associates won nearly every single top prize that included cash and cars, which were all together worth more than £16.2m.

Agent Mathews said in the HBO doc: “Between 1989 and 2001 there were no legitimate winners of the high-value game pieces in the McDonald’s Monopoly game. I mean how crazy, bulls*** is that?”

By the end of the sting, 53 people were charged and 48 ultimately pleaded guilty to fraud.

Jacobson himself pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud at a Jacksonville court before he served three years behind bars.

Coincidentally, very few people picked up on the trial as it started one day before the devastating September 11 attacks.

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