McDonald's Monopoly has remained a staple gimmick of the fast-food restaurant chain since 1987. The game, which operates for a short period annually, offers a chance for regular people to become millionaires overnight - that is, unless you were playing during the '90s. For the last decade of the millennium, a man who went by the moniker "Uncle Jerry" carried on a multilevel scam involving at least a dozen other people who netted him millions. Who is "Uncle Jerry" Jacobson, and how did he pull off the McDonald's Monopoly scam?
Like many '90s crimes, this one used a remarkably low-tech system. The McDonald's Monopoly scam didn't involve any sophisticated hacking or software that had to be cracked. It was a classic pyramid scheme, based on trading coveted Monopoly game pieces, run by a man who thought he was above the law.
As a young man, Jerry Jacobson worked as a police officer in Florida for about a year when he sustained a wrist injury. In 1980, Jacobson went on medical leave due to a neurological disorder, then moved to Georgia with his wife. After recovering enough to work, he floated between jobs for a while until his wife helped him get a job at Dittler Brothers, the specialty printing company where she was assigned as a security auditor.
Beginning in 1981, Jacobson worked his way up the ladder and eventually took charge of production for Simon Marketing, the company overseeing the production of the McDonald's Monopoly pieces.
According to some who worked with Jacobson, he was so stringent about security "he inspected workers' shoes to check they weren't stealing McDonald's game pieces." A truck driver who transported the game pieces told the Daily Beast that Jacobson had even required someone to go to the bathroom with the driver during company hauls.
Even though Jacobson kept a watchful eye over his employees, he was the one person who oversaw the printing of the pieces and knew the combination to the safe that protected the instant-win pieces. Despite having an independent auditor on his back at all times, Jacobson was able to eventually work out a scheme to rip off millions of dollars from his employer and McDonald's.
Before beginning his multimillion-dollar scam, Jacobson stole a piece worth $25,000 and gave it to his brother in Miami, FL, in 1989. According to court documents, Jacobson later said, "I don't know if I just wanted to show him I could do something."
After his initial scheme succeeded, he began accepting payments from people who wanted to get away with a quick $10,000 prize. At the time, however, McDonald's was dealing with a deluge of insider theft and started to administer the Monopoly game pieces more securely. Thus, Jacobson discontinued overseeing the distribution of winning pieces until 1995.
In 1995, Jacobson was again managing the distribution of promotional Monopoly pieces. He soon became disillusioned by the game after Simon Marketing declined to let the winning prizes get printed in Canada, even though the randomized prize draw had selected the country. The company claimed they wanted to keep their business in the United States, but Jacobson later said, "I knew what we were doing in Canada was wrong. Sooner or later, somebody was going to be asking questions about why there were no winners in Canada."
Jacobson felt the game was stacked against customers. Shortly afterward, he accidentally received a set of anti-tamper seals for the winning pieces and decided to dive headfirst into his scheme.
While working for Simon Marketing, Jacobson began living the high life as the guy who controlled winning Monopoly pieces. According to the Daily Beast, Jacobson flew everywhere first class and wore expensive clothes. After delivering the winning pieces to shipping facilities, where he made a big show of hiding the pieces, he would stop at Ruth's Chris Steak House to order an incredible amount of food, then charge it to his expense account.
By this time, he was making $70,000 a year, but he wanted more.