Badabababa — even the place where you get your Big Mac and iced coffee fix isn't free from scammers! Just after its Theranos documentary The Inventor, HBO is back on the true-crime train with the docuseries McMillions, which dives straight into the McDonald's Monopoly game scandal. Executive produced by Mark Wahlberg, the documentary uncovers how Jerome Jacobson rigged the popular game and profited from it. McDonald's might have not been lovin' this scheme, but the infamous story, nearly two decades old, continues to strike us as fascinating in our era of scammers.
How the McDonald's Monopoly Game Works
The premise of the game is relatively easy to understand. McDonald's started the Monopoly game in 1987 as a promotion, attaching pieces to food cartons and cups that signified small prizes. Besides winning soda or fries, there was also a very slim chance that you could score a car, vacation, or up to a million dollars.
How Uncle Jerry Scammed McDonald's
Uncle Jerry, aka Jerome Jacobson, was an ex-cop turned security auditor who rigged the game since at least 1989, stealing millions by building a network of conspirators. McDonald's had been working with Simon Marketing, Inc. to promote their Monopoly game, and the latter company put Jacobson, who worked from Georgia, as the head of security in charge of distributing the key game pieces at the McDonald's factories. But as the story goes, Jacobson took the best pieces for himself, essentially making the game unfair for other customers. In about a decade, he and his associates defrauded McDonald's a total of over $24 million.
Of course, he was too wily to cash in the prize himself. Jacobson gave the first win of $25,000 to his stepbrother. Eventually, Jacobson got random people to buy the pieces from him for a cut of their wins. He gave winning pieces to his family as well as other random people. Working with Jacobson didn't come cheaply. Prosecutors alleged that Jacobson charged $50,000 in advance before giving "winners" $1 million pieces.
While the pieces were technically nontransferable, Jacobson anonymously sent a $1 million piece to St. Jude's Children Hospital in 1995. The fast-food franchise made an exception for the organization and paid out the cash prize.
How Uncle Jerry Got Exposed
The FBI first learned about the scam from an anonymous tip from someone who had "won" a 1996 Dodge Viper through the scheme. McDonald's kept the game going on long enough to figure out which winners were conspirators in the scam through wiretaps and stakeouts. In 2001, Jacobson and over 50 others were charged with conspiracy and mail fraud. Jacobson was sentenced to three years in federal prison and had to return the money he collected. Most people were fined or put on probation.
McDonald's also cut off ties with Simon Marketing, with whom it had been working with for over 25 years for promotions, including Happy Meals. The two companies sued each other over breach of contract, and McDonald's eventually settled by paying Simon Marketing $16.6 million.
Until the documentary premieres on HBO on Feb. 3, check out the trailer: