It’s 2001 in Rhode Island, and casino worker Michael Hoover is about to become a millionaire. After finding a winning piece tucked inside a magazine, he has hit the jackpot in McDonald’s popular Monopoly promotion. But the officials with the giant check have a hidden agenda: they’re on the trail of a scam artist who has managed to rig the game.
First launched in 1987, McDonald’s Monopoly is one of the longest-running promotions in the history of the fast food chain. To date, the game has run across more than 20 different countries, with players challenged to collect pieces from branded packaging. If they win, the lucky individuals can each claim fantastic prizes such as cash, holidays and luxury cars.
Based on the Hasbro board game of the same name, the McDonald’s version of Monopoly follows the same basic rules. However, while players can still win big by collecting a set of matching properties – with a cool $1 million typically offered to anyone who acquires Park Place and the rare Boardwalk – there is also the chance to get lucky with an instant win token.
A year after McDonald’s Monopoly launched, meanwhile, an ex-cop named Jerome Jacobson began working for Simon Marketing – the company responsible for running the game. Then in his mid-forties, Jacobson’s dreams of becoming a police officer had long since passed. He had actually joined the force in 1976, but an injury followed by the onset of a rare medical condition had quickly curtailed his fledgling career in law enforcement.
Newly unemployed, Jacobson had moved with his wife Marsha to Atlanta, Georgia, where she managed to find him work as a private security guard at Dittler Brothers – the printing company tasked with manufacturing McDonald’s Monopoly game pieces on behalf of Simon Marketing. And even though the couple soon separated, Jacobson excelled in this new environment.
At Dittler Brothers, Jacobson proved himself a dedicated worker with meticulous attention to detail. Indeed, the ex-cop reportedly made sure that delivery drivers were accompanied every step of the way. And Jacobson would even check employee’s footwear to ensure that they weren’t concealing any valuable game pieces, apparently.
By 1988, in fact, Jacobson had made such as impression on Simon Marketing that they offered him a job. And soon, he found himself responsible for overseeing much of the wildly popular game. Specifically, the ex-cop was tasked with observing the printing presses and technicians as they churned out millions of game pieces.
Jacobson even pioneered a new anti-counterfeit measure, in fact, applying watermarks at random to game pieces. What’s more, he also invented a special type of vest that he could use to keep the most valuable tokens safe and secure while transporting them.
Crucially, though, Jacobson had another important role to play. When it was time to put the high value game pieces into play – tokens worth several thousands of dollars, for example, or prizes such as luxury cars – it was his job to place them in an envelope by hand, using a tamper-proof sticker to mark them as secure.
Jacobson was handsomely rewarded for his efforts, too. In fact, the ex-cop now picked up a salary of $70,000 a year – far more than he could ever have earned in law enforcement. And soon, he developed a taste for the finer things in life, racking up huge restaurant bills on the company account and flying First Class around the country. However, he also frequently consulted psychics and was said to have invested money in a Ponzi scheme.
Then, in 1989, the temptation finally grew too great for Jacobson; he decided to cheat the game. First, he gave a $25,000 token to his step-brother during a family reunion, later telling The Daily Beast that he just wanted “to see if I could do it.” And the ex-cop’s next move was to slip his butcher a $10,000 game piece – pocketing a 20 percent commission when the prize money arrived.
Jacobson wasn’t the only person making a quick buck by conning the McDonald’s Monopoly system, though. Yes, the fast food giant soon discovered that the game was being undermined by its employees stealing game pieces. The company, therefore, cracked down on security, but by 1995 Jacobson was back in charge once more. Then when the ex-cop uncovered what he believed was evidence that the game was rigged against the Canadian market in favor of the United States, he decided that further exploitation was fair game.
And handily for Jacobson, the final piece of his fraudulent puzzle fell into place that very same year. You see, a supplier accidentally mailed the ex-cop a cache of tamper-proof stickers; thereby allowing him to steal as many valuable game pieces as he wanted without detection. This, then, was the start of a long and elaborate con that would last for six years and redirect some $24 million in prizes to Jacobson and his network of co-conspirators.
Jacobson was initially cautious, however. After sealing one stolen $1 million game piece in a safety deposit book, he anonymously donated a second to a children’s hospital in Tennessee. But a chance meeting with Sicilian Gennaro Colombo – reportedly a member of the notorious Colombo crime family – sent the scam to the next level.
Soon, Colombo had recruited a network of people prepared to cash in Jacobson’s illegally-obtained prizes. This web of deceit allegedly included Colombo’s father-in-law, William Fisher, and Gloria Brown, best friend of the Sicilian’s wife, Robin. In return for their rewards, the con’s participants sent the security guard a portion of their winnings. And the co-conspirators often had to go to great lengths in order to avoid raising suspicion, too. Brown, for example, traveled hundreds of miles from home to claim her prize.
In May 1998, though, Colombo, Robin and their young son Frankie were in a terrible car crash. And weeks later, Colombo died. The Sicilian’s family now grew suspicious that Robin might have caused the tragedy in order to escape her failing marriage. Then, two years later, the FBI received a tip-off that Fisher’s $1 million Monopoly winnings were illegally obtained. And although the identity of the informant remains unknown, Robin believes that the Colombo family were behind the leak.
Jacobson, meanwhile, had been busy recruiting new participants into his scam. But even though his generous cut allowed him to live a life of luxury, he began to grow paranoid as more and more false winners stepped forwards to claim their prizes. And finally, in 2000 – 11 years after Jacobson first gave away a winning McDonald’s Monopoly game piece – the law started to catch up with his con.
In June of that year, the $1 million prize went to George Chandler – the foster son of Jacobson’s latest co-conspirator, Dwight Baker. Then, in April 2001, a friend of Baker’s, Ronald Hughey, claimed to have found the next winning token. But although Hughey said he lived in Tennessee, investigators were able to trace him to Anderson, South Carolina. In fact, his property was located just a few miles from Chandler’s home. And when Baker’s $500,000 prize-winning sister-in-law was traced to the same area, too, the FBI began to close in.
But although McDonald’s representatives knew that the competition was compromised, they allowed it to continue – giving the FBI a chance to capture their man. And through extensive surveillance and a sting operation, detectives were able to gather sufficient evidence on Jacobson and his recruiters. Subsequently, the fraudster served 37 months behind bars and was ordered to pay back $12.5 million of his ill-gotten gains.
Today, surprisingly few people have heard of Jacobson and his incredible scam – most likely because the fraudster’s trial took place the day before 9/11. All that looks set to change, though. You see, an expose published by The Daily Beast in July 2018 has revived interest in the McDonald’s Monopoly scandal. And the article subsequently sparked a bidding war in Hollywood, too. In fact, the battle for the story was so intense that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s production company eventually forked out $1 million for the film rights. If all goes to plan, then, we will soon get to see Jacobson’s fraudulent exploits unfold on the big screen.