The McDonald's Monopoly fraud scandal rocked the fast food industry.
Every year, contestants around the world pile into the Golden Arches, ripping apart French fries in a desperate bid for a new X-Box. It would be slightly grotesque if it wasn't so exciting.
However, for all the hopes and dreams promised by the prize draw, the McDonald's Monopoly game has a dark history. Beyond the free cars and cash prizes, McDonald's Monopoly has an unsavoury association with fraud and organised crime.
As the 2021 edition of the game gets underway, we look back at what really happened with the McDonald's Monopoly fraud scandal, and whether you can actually win a prize. Incredibly, the story is even more dramatic than it sounds.
McDonald's Monopoly fraud
McDonald's Monopoly was first introduced in the US in 1987. Although there are several variants around the world, the basic blueprint involves collecting different game pieces from McDonald's menu items and exchanging them for prizes.
For several years, the system worked without a hitch. Customers won prizes and McDonald's made millions as a result of increased sales during the promotion. However, things began to unravel in 1995.
The story centres around former Simon Marketing employee Jerome P. Jacobsen. As head of security at the marketing firm hired by McDonald's to help run the promotion, Jacobsen enjoyed privileged access to high-level McDonald's Monopoly information.
This meant that, starting in 1995, he was able to remove high-value pieces from the game and keep them for himself.
Initially, Jacobsen distributed the pieces only to friends and family, selling them in exchange for a cut of the winnings. However, he soon made the fraud national when he teamed up with Gennaro "Jerry" Colombo of the Colombo Crime family.
Between them, Jacobsen and Colombo spent the next six years rinsing the Monopoly system for all it was worth. Colombo even appeared in a McDonald's television ad, showing off his fraudulent win of a Dodge Viper.
When the scheme was eventually discovered, Jacobsen and his associates had netted themselves a cool $24 million in prizes. Prosecutors indicted no less than 21 people. Jacobsen himself spent three years behind bars.
Small wonder that many people still don't fully trust the game system.
Were there any legitimate McDonald's Monopoly winners?
Even during the fraudulent US years, there were some legitimate winners. Jacobsen's associates ultimately only targeted the most high-value pieces, so thousands of smaller prizes were still up for grabs.
In addition, it was subsequently proven that not all the indicted conspirators were necessarily aware that there was a scam going on.
During the trial, it emerged that four of the million-dollar prize winners had no idea that Jacobsen stole their pieces. As a result, the judge actually overturned their convictions, allowing them to walk away.
However, there's no doubt that the high-profile Jacobsen case seriously shook public faith in McDonald's Monopoly.
Can you actually win McDonald's Monopoly?
Given the game's long-running association with fraud, many remain understandably sceptical that anyone has ever actually won anything fairly. However, despite Jacobsen's scheme, McDonald's Monopoly has thrown up some genuine success stories.
For instance, the official McDonald's UK website states:
"Over the years McDonald's U.K. has given millions of prizes to millions of people as part of the Monopoly promotion. These have included everything from McDonald's food prizes and shopping vouchers, to wonderful weekend breaks and spanking new sets of headphones."
The game also continues to be successful in the US, with regulations understandably sharpened up. In an interview with The Balance Everyday, an American $100,000 winner said:
"I have been playing Monopoly at McDonald's for several years but I had never won anything more than small food items... playing again this year and have told all my family and friends to play as well.
"I occasionally enter other sweepstakes, now that I know real people really do win."
Despite the promotion's controversial history, there are clearly still exciting things on offer.
McDonald's Monopoly fraud movie
With a multi-million dollar heist, the Mafia and fast food at its centre, the McDonald's Monopoly fraud seems like perfect Hollywood territory. It's not surprising, therefore, that a project is already in the works.
In 2018, it emerged that 20th Century Fox was planning an onscreen adaptation, with Ben Affleck directing and Matt Damon in an unspecified acting role.
Although there have been few updates on the movie's progress so far, the McDonald's Monopoly fraud scandal has made it to our screens in another form.
In 2020, HBO released the documentary series McMillions, which told the full story of the saga in six episodes. The show won critical acclaim as well as several award nominations.
Since we may have to wait a while for a full-blown theatrical retelling, McMillions is as good a place as any to get a grip on the story.