How A Crime Ring Repeatedly Beat McDonald’s Monopoly

MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 24: In this photo illustration, houses from a Monopoly board game sit on top of British currency coins on October 23, 2008 in Manchester, England. As markets across the globe continue to struggle the world wide credit crunch begins to bite deeper with fears of economic recession (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
“That the chance of gain is naturally over-valued, we may learn from the universal success of lotteries.” —Adam Smith, “The Wealth of Nations”

In A Nutshell

In the McDonald’s Monopoly sweepstakes, the odds of winning a prize (mostly food prizes like fries) are about one in four. However, the odds of winning the top prize of $1 million are a whopping 1 in 602 million. Some people have tried to beat the odds legally. But starting around 1995, one man who worked on the security team for Simon Marketing, Inc., which ran almost all of McDonald’s promotions, stole valuable game pieces from the promotions. His crime ring collected top prizes worth a total of over $20 million before the FBI arrested them in 2001 and the scheme was finally stopped.

The Whole Bushel

To realize the dream of winning big in a lottery or sweepstakes, you have to beat almost insurmountable odds. Maybe that’s why some people get creative when playing sweepstakes like the annual McDonald’s Monopoly game. Since the 1980s, for a limited time each year, McDonald’s gives away a game piece with two stamps each time you purchase certain menu items. The stamps show an instant prize or the equivalent of a space on the board of the famous Monopoly game. For the game board, you’ll win a prize if you collect all of the railroads or all of the Monopoly properties with the same color.

In 2014, for the McDonald’s in-store game, Business Insider calculated the odds of winning a prize at 25 percent. However, almost 90 percent of the prizes are food prizes like fries. After you subtract the food prizes, there’s about a 2.5 percent chance of winning a non-food instant prize, which ranges from a DVD to $100,000.

However, the Monopoly game board pieces hold out the tantalizing possibility of winning up to $1 million. The problem for players is that McDonald’s makes certain game pieces scarce. It’s somewhat easy to get all but one property of the same color on the Monopoly board. Finding that last property of the color you need usually has astronomical odds. For example, in 2014, the odds of getting a blue Boardwalk game piece was 1 in 602 million for a $1 million prize paid out as $50,000 per year for 20 years. The easiest one to find was the red Kentucky Avenue piece at 1 in 15 million with 40 winners of two plane tickets each. The best odds for pocketing a cash prize with a set of Monopoly properties was 1 in 30 million if you got the brown Mediterranean Avenue, which would win you $1,000.

Over the years, people have tried different schemes to beat the odds. McDonald’s even helped a couple of times itself. In 2011, over 120 McDonald’s restaurants in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, accepted Monopoly money for a short time in exchange for a large order of fries. McDonald’s restaurants in Canada did the same thing.

Then there’s the guy who tried to take advantage of a technicality. In order for the sweepstakes to be legal, no purchase is necessary. Otherwise, the sweepstakes might be deemed an illegal lottery.

So according to the rules, Brandon Duncombe of Florida sent McDonald’s 100 handwritten letters (each with a self-addressed, stamped envelope) requesting four game stamps each, for a total of 400 game stamps. It set him back about $117 in postage and 10 hours of writing the letters. Although he didn’t get any food for his $117, he saved at least $81 when compared to ordering the cheapest item on McDonald’s menu (hash browns) to get 400 stamps.

McDonald’s mailed back 98 of his 100 self-addressed envelopes. He won 22 medium fries and a number of other food prizes. His only non-food prizes were four DVDs and some Snapfish Prints. But overall, he lost $26.38 and 14 hours of his life.

Other people have resorted to unethical or illegal activity. Sometimes, a scammer will post an offer on Craigslist or a forum to collaborate with another person who has the Boardwalk stamp. When the duped person sends off the rare winning stamp, the scammer disappears.

However, the boldest scheme came from Jerome Jacobson, head of the security team at Simon Marketing, Inc., the company that once ran almost all of McDonald’s promotions—from “Happy Meals” to “Monopoly” to “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” From 1995 to 2001, Jacobson stole valuable game pieces from the promotions and distributed them to friends and associates who collected top prizes worth a total of over $20 million.

A former police officer, Jacobson was the only person on the security team who oversaw distribution of game pieces in the US. He started by stealing a $25,000 stamp in 1989 and giving it to his stepbrother. By 1995, he stole the stamps for all the big prizes. Unable to collect the prizes himself, he sold the stamps to family, friends, and others they persuaded to join the scheme. Jacobson received $1 million in kickbacks from the winners.

Following a tip, the FBI stopped the crime ring in 2001. Jacobson received a three-year sentence in federal prison. Over 50 other people were indicted in the scheme, though most got light sentences. As a result of the theft, McDonald’s fired Simon Marketing. However, McDonald’s did continue to pay one big winner $50,000 a year for its $1 million prize even though the win was fraudulent. That winner was St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, which had received $1 million worth of game pieces anonymously in the mail in 1995.

Show Me The Proof

Business Insider: The Math Behind McDonald’s Monopoly Sweepstakes Shows The Only Properties That Really Matter
Patch: Greenfield McDonald’s Will Accept Monopoly Money Today
Ad Week: McDonald’s Canada Now Taking Monopoly Money
Huffington Post: McDonald’s Monopoly Game: How To Win Without Spending $1 At McDonald’s
Bargaineering: Handwriting 100 Letters for McDonald’s Monopoly Pieces
Priceonomics: The McDonalds Monopoly Fraud