The thought of winning a tropical vacation or a new car for just a few bucks may sound far-fetched, but that’s exactly what McDonald’s promised in 1987 when it began its famous Monopoly campaign. People all over the world began snatching up burgers and fries, hoping to cash in on the jackpot of a lifetime.
But as customers shelled out their hard-earned dollars for a chance to win, one man simply sat back and watched as millions of dollars poured in. Through a complicated scheme involving mobsters, Mormons, and even fortune tellers, Jerome Jacobson pulled off the heist of the century — virtually scot-free.
Born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1943, Jerome Jacobson knew from a young age that he wanted to be a police officer. Although Jacobson would see his dream become a reality after joining Florida’s Hollywood Police Department in 1976, his law enforcement career would prove to be short-lived.
In 1980, while on medical leave for an injured wrist, Jacobson collapsed with full-body paralysis and was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder. With his wife Marsha caring for him around the clock, Jacobson was unable to return to work and was subsequently fired from the department.
Following his divorce from Marsha after years of tension over his illness, Jacobson began a new career as a security auditor for an accounting firm and found immediate success. In fact, Jacobson was so good at his job that one of his firm’s clients — a company called Simon Marketing — quickly brought him onto their team.
Now, Simon Marketing wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill marketing firm; from top to bottom, the company handled only the biggest clients, with some accounts valued at upwards of half a billion dollars. But Simon Marketing felt that Jacobson was more than qualified, and so they gave him oversight of one of their biggest accounts: the $500 million McDonald’s Monopoly campaign.
In his new role, Jacobson was entrusted to create a theft-proof system for the fast-food giant’s newest contest, granting him an inside look at the inner workings of the game. Not only was Jacobson present as the printing presses cranked out millions of game pieces, but he also watched as the company’s supercomputer selected the winning prizes. That’s when the temptation first began.
In accordance with Jacobson’s approved system, he and an assistant auditor would cut out the winning pieces and slip them into tamper-proof envelopes, which Jacobson himself would then deliver to restaurants across the country. But the urge to steal became too great for Jacobson, and in 1989 — a year after being hired by Simon Marketing — he casually slipped a $25,000 game piece into his step-brother’s hand.
The success of this first theft inflated Jacobson’s ego, so when his butcher mentioned that he’d love to win one of McDonald’s coveted cash prizes Jacobson bragged that he could make it happen. Intrigued, the butcher agreed to have a distant friend claim a $10,000 winning ticket for him to avoid suspicion, and Jacobson received a $2,000 kickback for his troubles.
The scam only became easier from there, as due to a shipping error Jacobson received a box of anti-tamper seals for the game-piece envelopes in 1995. To pull off the theft, Jacobson would take the winning envelopes into airport bathrooms, switch out the winning pieces, and then reseal them. It was foolproof.
In order to keep up the scheme, Jacobson began to recruit “investors” from across the country so that the winners didn’t appear to be coming from just one area. Jacobson selected locations for “investors” to “win” their prizes, with one Florida woman claiming to live with family in South Carolina in order to cash a $40,000 game piece. But no matter the size of the prize, Jacobson always made sure to get his cut.
Bill Selak / Flickr
By the late 90’s, Jacobson was nabbing nearly all of the big-money pieces, helping himself and his extended family to accrue massive fortunes. But even with all the fancy cars, designers suits, and expensive dinners, Jacobson still wanted more — and pretty soon, he’d meet a man that’d help him do just that.
While waiting for a flight in Atlanta, Jacobson had a chance encounter with Gennaro “Jerry” Colombo, a member of the notorious Colombo crime family of New York. Colombo took an interest in Jacobson’s “line of work”, and after proposing a business partnership that would make them both millionaires Jacobson answered him with a winning game piece for a Dodge Viper. He was in.
The terms of Jacobson and Colombo’s partnership were straightforward: Colombo would pick “winners” from a group of friends and send kickbacks to Jacobson, whom he affectionately referred to as “Uncle Jerry”. It was also during this time that Jacobson made one very unexpected millionaire…
In an attempt to clear his guilty conscience — but most likely to get some sympathy points in the event he was ever caught — Jacobson sent a winning game piece to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital worth $1 million. But even with a shred of good karma on his side, Jacobson still couldn’t stop tragedy from striking.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
While on his way to check out a piece of property in Georgia, Colombo was involved in a high-speed car accident and later died from his injuries. Colombo’s death was a huge blow to the scheme, but Jacobson didn’t see this as the end to his life of crime: he just needed to find new partners.
And find them he did, recruiting the owner of a fried chicken restaurant chain and a Mormon real estate agent to find him his “winners”. Jacobson even went as far as to bring an ex-convict who served 12 years in prison for drug running into his inner circle in an attempt to keep his scam afloat.
With the number of his “investors” growing rapidly, Jacobson began to grow paranoid that one of his millionaires might compromise the whole operation. And so, Jacobson did what any other ordinary person would do: he hired a psychic. Paid with a $50,000 game piece, the fortune teller assured Jacobson that there was no danger in his immediate future. As it turns out, she wasn’t such a great psychic after all.
In 2000, Special Agent Richard Dent of the FBI received a tip that William Fisher, the man who had won a $1 million prize during the 1996 Deluxe Monopoly Game, was a fraud. After contacting McDonald’s spokesperson Amy Murray, the two began digging into the conspiracy and soon made a shocking discovery.
According to Murray, Fisher, who claimed to have won his prize while living in New Hampshire for a year, had actually been in Jacksonville the whole time. Another winner, Gloria Brown, was also rerouting $50,000 checks to the Jacksonville area. Something just wasn’t adding up.
When Dent and Murray brought their initial findings to McDonald’s headquarters, company executives were quick to aid in the FBI investigation and provided Dent with a list of all past winners. They also pointed the FBI to Simon Marketing, and it wasn’t long before marketing director Jerome Jacobson became a suspect.
Before any hasty decisions could be made, Dent and his fellow agents began tapping Jacobson’s phone, recording nearly 250,000 hours worth of evidence as the scheme unraveled before them. Before long, Dent discovered one final piece of evidence that would finally put the investigation to bed.
As Dent ran down the list of past winners, he realized that not only had most of them lied about their place of residence but they also all lived within mere miles of each other in South Carolina. Dent mapped out the location of each of these winners, and at the center of the map was Jacobson’s home. They’d got him.
Dent and the FBI had all they needed to move on Jacobson, but they’d need McDonald’s to run one last game of Monopoly before they could. Though McDonald’s CEO Jack Greenberg was initially wary of the plan, he ultimately greenlighted the contest and the sting operation — titled Operation: Final Answer — was a go.
In August of 2001, Jacobson and eight others were arrested and indicted on charges of conspiracy and mail fraud, with Jacobson being handed a sentence that would see him imprisoned for the remainder of his life. By the end of the investigation, over 50 individuals were charged in connection with the scheme.
During his trial, Jacobson pled guilty to three counts of mail fraud and wound up serving only 15 years in prison along with paying $12.5 million in restitution. Though Jacobson walks a free man today, he maintains that his Monopoly scheme will forever haunt him as the biggest mistake of his life.
While Jacobson’s Monopoly scandal has long since been uncovered, the story of how the ex-cop swindled the fast-food giant out of millions will be sticking around for quite some time. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are set to produce a film based on Jacobson’s fraud, assuring that the tale of this legendary theft will live on forever.
Consequence of Sound
All of those people that only needed the Boardwalk piece to win big sure won’t be happy to hear this!
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