“Uncle Jerry” lived lavishly. His neighbors lost count of all the cars that appeared in his driveway and buying new properties became a hobby. Many assumed he was just the successful security chief of a marketing firm. But all thanks to McDonald’s Monopoly game, the reality was so deeply twisted that Hollywood couldn’t help but get their hands on it.
He was a model member of society who would become one of America’s most wanted crime ring leaders. And although he lived the majority of his life out of the public eye, he would eventually do something so unthinkably crafty that everyone would know his name.
The man known as Uncle Jerry managed to rig the McDonald’s Monopoly game where customers eagerly collect Monopoly pieces attached to burger wrappers, fry packets, and drink cups in exchange for high-earning prizes. But far beyond just helping others win, what he did would be so outrageous that even Hollywood couldn’t have thought of it alone. And they had to grab a piece of it themselves.
Jerome Jacobson, known as “Uncle Jerry,” wanted to become a police officer when he grew up. When he was discharged from the Marines due to recurring injuries and allergies, he feared he might have to give up on his childhood ambitions. Thankfully, in 1976 his dream came true, and he joined Hollywood, Florida’s police department. But the dream was short-lived.
He sustained a bad wrist injury just one year later and was placed on medical leave. He was then diagnosed with a rare nerve disorder, leaving him no choice but to exit the workforce altogether. Little did he know, however, he’d soon find a very different job — and he would open doors he never knew existed.
In 1981, Jacobson and his wife moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and he recovered enough to get back to work. This time, Jacobson worked in private security for a printing company called Dittler Brothers. As part of his job, he managed production for Dittler’s client, Simon Marketing: the printing company that made the pieces for McDonald’s Happy Meal and their famous Monopoly game.
According to one colleague, with police-like attention to detail, “[Jacobson] inspected workers’ shoes to check they weren’t stealing McDonald’s [Monopoly] game pieces.” It was enough to wow Simon’s executives into giving him a job offer, a happy ending to Jacobson’s previous medical struggles. But he never expected that the simple job offer would put him on track to amassing a fortune.
Jacobson was given a job as the Chief of Security at Simon Marketing. As such, he was tasked with creating a theft-proof way to run their Monopoly game. As Jacobson later told investigators, “It was my responsibility to keep the integrity of the game and get those winners to the public.”
This meant he oversaw the computerized prize draw and the printing of the game pieces. He personally placed the winning pieces – which read “INSTANT WINNER!” – into envelopes with tamper-proof seals and transported them to McDonald’s packaging facilities. As a former police officer, he projected a trustworthy image to the company. But the temptation this new role presented him would later prove irresistible.
In 1989, Jacobson pocketed his first high-value game prize, worth $25,000, and gave it to his step-brother. According to The Daily Beast’s Jeff Maysh, Jacobson later admitted to investigators, “I don’t know if I just wanted to show him I could do something, or [was] bragging.”
Whatever his reasoning, it set off a chain reaction. His local butcher was the next recipient. But because they were neighbors, Jacobson feared it would look too suspicious for him to win. They agreed that the butcher’s out-of-state friend would collect the prize. Jacobson made $2,000 off the $10,000 piece. Six years later, something would happen in Simon Marketing’s office that changed everything.
According to Jacobson, Simon Marketing executives ordered him to keep high-valued game pieces within the United States, so whenever the computerized prize draw chose factories in Canada, he was made to re-run the program until it chose an American territory. He thought it was very wrong, saying, “Sooner or later, somebody was going to be asking questions about why there were no winners in Canada.”
It got him thinking: if the game was already rigged, then why not rig it himself? Jacobson decided to pocket the high-valued monopoly pieces and sell them. And as he wondered how to pull it off, he found his answer in a misaddressed package that arrived at his doorstep.
In 1995, a shipment of the tamper-proof seals (which were used to secure the prize-winning pieces in an envelope) arrived at Jacobson’s house, marked with the wrong address. This was all he needed to steal the pieces on his way to the packaging facilities. Years later, he admitted to his strategy.
Jacobson would go into the men’s bathroom at the airport where his female inspector couldn’t accompany him. There, he un-sealed the winning pieces and place them into his pocket, re-sealing the envelope with non-winning pieces inside. When he took his first winning game piece worth $1 million, he stored it in a safety deposit box. But with the next one, he would do something unthinkable.
Not long after the package arrived at Jacobson’s doorstep, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee received a mysterious letter in the mail. At first glance, the card covered in bright colors appeared to be junk mail. But when the cash control clerk opened it up, she was shocked at the contents: a winning McDonald’s Monopoly game piece!
An investigation never uncovered the donor’s identity. But according to CNN, a source close to Jacobson admitted he hoped his $1 million donation would land him a shorter prison sentence if he was ever caught. But his chances of getting caught were in fact increasing. Something alarming happened back in Atlanta.
Jacobson’s butcher requested another winning piece. Only this time, he wanted his sister to be the one to “find” it. Jacobson agreed he’d give him the $200,000 piece for a $45,000 cut of the earnings. The condition? The butcher had to accompany his sister to Maryland to “find” that winning piece on the back of a box of French fries.
But the butcher failed to hold up his end of the deal. He claimed it in Atlanta on his own, celebrating his victory on television. Because nabbing a winning piece had a 1 in 250 million chance, Jacobson feared a winner in his hometown was risky. How would he claim the prizes and rake in a substantial sum of money without raising suspicion? The answer came in the form of an unlikely friendship.
At the airport, Jacobson happened to meet Al Capone-lookalike, Gennaro Colombo. The two ended up talking openly about their professions, and as a member of New York’s Colombo crime family, Colombo was quick to jump on the bandwagon of an organized scam. First, Colombo grew Jacobson’s network of co-conspirators, introducing him to his and his wife Robin’s family and friends.
Not only did they give him the nickname “Uncle Jerry,” but they all became the next recipients of the winning prizes. Under Jacobson’s direction, they were instructed where to travel to “find” the prize, and were coached on what to tell McDonald’s representatives. Soon enough, Jacobson was selling all the winning pieces, turning his operation into a multi-million dollar scheme. Business was running smoothly with Colombo on the team — until tragedy struck.
Fast forward to 1998. Gennaro Colombo and his wife Robin were having marital problems, and in a bid to save their marriage and start over, they moved from South Carolina to Georgia. Though living in the same state certainly would have made running the Monopoly operation easier for Jacobson and his new partner, the excitement of the move was short-lived.
Robin was driving them to visit a piece of land they wished to buy, when they had a bad car accident. While Robin and their son were fine, Colombo was not as fortunate. He was on life support for two weeks until the doctors decided to take him off, and he passed away. Would Jacobson’s mission now doomed without Colombo’s help?
Jacobson had now been living a lie for nearly a decade. According to The Daily Beast, his new wife Linda wasn’t even aware of his source of wealth. He allegedly always had a new car or piece of land, frequented only the nicest clubs and cruises, and wore high-end designer suits. Still, nearly everyone on the outside believed him to be a successful security chief.
But behind the scenes, Jacobson had an extensive network of co-conspirator family members, friends, mobsters, and even a group of devout Mormons who were plagued with money issues. He wanted to recruit more people. But what Jacobson didn’t know was that his desire to expand his network would lead him to trouble.
In 1999, Jacobson met convicted drug trafficker Andrew Glomb. He soon became Jacobson’s new partner and started handing out winning pieces to his friends. The kicker? They, too, had criminal pasts. In Glomb’s words, “They were on their a***… they had nothing. I mean, if you could imagine flying across country, giving somebody a million dollars, and I had to pick up the dinner check.”
Because McDonald’s made commercials with their $1 million winners, it wasn’t good publicity for the franchise when they televised winners who were ex-convicts. McDonald’s customers across America were becoming frustrated with the game’s winners, which caused anxiety for Jacobson. This inspired him to solicit help from an unlikely source.
After media outlets aired the grievances of McDonald’s customers who questioned whether McDonald’s employees were stealing game pieces, Jacobson feared impending investigations. He needed to know if it was indeed cause to worry, or if he was just paranoid over his growing crime ring and the upset in the McDonald’s community.
To soothe his concerns, Jacobson decided he would go for a reading by a psychic. In exchange for $50,000 (acquired, of course, from a Monopoly piece), the psychic told him what he wanted to hear — that all would be well and no investigations lay ahead. Would time prove her predictions correct?
With the dawn of the new millennium came the beginning of the end. It was then that an anonymous informant tipped off the FBI with information about the McDonald’s Monopoly game scam. They gave two names: William Fisher and Uncle Jerry. Fisher was the father of Gennaro Colombo’s widow Robin.
Fisher had won the $1 million “Deluxe Monopoly Game” prize in 1996. Though he’d claimed to have lived in New Hampshire when he “found” the winning piece, the FBI searched property records, discovering he had always lived in Florida. McDonald’s officials were deeply concerned. They teamed up with the FBI to provide them with a list of winners, as well as the procedures involved in the game’s production. They never imagined what would surface next.
After McDonald’s officials explained to the FBI that the Monopoly game pieces were made by Simon Marketing and were printed in Georgia, the FBI took a close look at all parties involved. They found out that Simon Marketing’s chief of security, one Jerome Jacobson, oversaw everything related to the game pieces. They connected the name to the moniker “Uncle Jerry” and began investigating him.
But after tapping his phone to compile the evidence they needed to prosecute him, they realized the case was much larger than a one man operation. With 25 agents working on the case around the country, they collected nearly 250 hours of conversations from more than 20,000 phone numbers. They now needed a way to catch the schemers red-handed.
McDonald’s CEO Jack Greenberg collaborated with the FBI to catch the schemers. First, they planned a “winner’s reunion” in Las Vegas, with the secret intention of having each winner attend and walk into the FBI’s trap. But when that idea was shot down, they agreed on running one last fake “Pick Your Prize” Monopoly game.
Knowing the game was rigged and the two winning pieces were in Uncle Jerry’s hands, McDonald’s execs feared the game would tarnish their reputation and lead to lawsuits. However, the FBI convinced them that they needed this last crucial piece of evidence to put the crime barons behind bars. Would Jacobson and his team fall for their trap?
By wire-tapping Jacobson’s phone, the FBI discovered he was planning to give a winning piece to former drug trafficker Andrew Glomb, and the other to his devout Mormon friend Dwight Baker. Jacobson and Baker had plans to meet in Kentucky, where Baker would give Jacobson $70,000 in cash in exchange for a winning piece.
Baker would then pass the piece off to a friend in Texas, Ronnie Hughey, who would then give it to his brother-in-law, John Davis, to claim. The FBI followed their every move. Sure enough, some eight days later, John Davis announced his $1 million win to McDonald’s. Uncle Jerry had been caught. But he wouldn’t go down without a fight.
In an effort to make the jury go easy on him, Jacobson explained that he only pocketed the Monopoly pieces because he thought the game was already rigged. He even presented the court with a stolen document that he believed proved Canadians were prevented from winning, saying, “I thought I would need that to protect myself.”
But when that failed to work as a “get out of jail free” card, Jacobson changed his story. He claimed he was the one who gave the anonymous donation to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. But that ruse fizzled too, and it was clear Jacobson would be sentenced. And no one could have guessed what his final punishment would look like.
On September 10, 2001, Jerome Jacobson was put on trial. He faced nine charges, each with a five-year prison sentence. This would make him 104 years old before being released. However, after signing a confession and admitting to having stolen up to 60 Monopoly game pieces valued at over $24 million, Jacobson got off with just a three-year sentence.
But that wasn’t all. Jacobson had to pay $12.5 million and turn over all his properties, boats, and cars to the government. According to The Daily Beast, Jacobson’s neighbors looked on as his ’86 Chevy El Camino and Honda S200 sports car were whisked away from his home by agents. But what about the rest of the co-conspirators and prize winners?
In the end, an entire network of over 50 people connected to the McDonald’s Monopoly game scam were charged with conspiracy and mail fraud. Jacobson’s main co-conspirators, such as Andrew Glomb, were fined and sentenced to prison for a year and a day. Dwight Baker was excommunicated from the Mormon church.
He, along with handfuls of other “winners,” were also placed on probation and made to pay $50 a month to make up for their prize money. Robin Colombo, on the other hand, was sentenced to 18 months behind bars. And while no one has ever found out who snitched to the FBI, she claims to have an idea.
According to The Daily Beast, Robin Colombo believes it was her late husband’s own parents who anonymously tipped the FBI. Her reasoning? They believed she had deliberately caused the fatal car accident, given the marital struggles she was going through with Colombo. Following her husband’s death, Robin said she tried distancing herself from the Colombo crime family for fear that they were “brainwashing” her son to behave like them.
Therefore, she claimed tipping off the FBI “was their retaliation.” With certainty, she added that giving her father’s name to authorities was their way of ensuring she’d go to jail, which, of course, she eventually did. The trial was not only bleak for those at the center of the scam, however. McDonald’s and Simon Marketing also had to deal with the fallout.
Now it was time for McDonald’s to speak up about the scam that had corrupted America’s favorite Monopoly game for 12 years. How would they make over their wounded reputation? And what would come of their relationship with Simon Marketing? CEO Jack Greenberg decided he had to inform all of America through a television address.
As a plea for a “second chance,” Greenberg announced in a TV commercial that McDonald’s was running a $10 million giveaway, saying, “McDonald’s is committed to giving our customers a chance to win every dollar that has been stolen by this criminal ring.” As for Simon Marketing, McDonald’s terminated their working relationship. In one night, the printing company fell by 78% on the stock market. For such a huge scandal, many have questioned why there wasn’t more media coverage.
Jacobson’s trial took place on September 10, 2001, one day prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks that left the nation devastated. According to The Daily Beast, Jacobson’s associate Dwight Baker went so far as to make the bold claim that “if the FBI had focused on surveilling terrorists not McDonald’s winners, 9/11 might never have happened.”
While media coverage of the scam and trial had been extensive until that point, it was understandably redirected following the attacks one day later. This would explain why so many people had reportedly forgotten about the ending to McDonald’s Monopoly game scam. Yet over a decade and a half later, the world was reminded once again.
Nearly a decade and a half after its final trial took place, the greatest McDonald’s scam in history bounced right back into the public eye, all thanks to one key article posted online. Talk about the power of the Internet! In July 2018, some 29 years after Jerome Jacobson pocketed his first Monopoly piece, Jeff Maysh re-told the sensational story in The Daily Beast.
A story this juicy was bound to catch Hollywood’s attention. Some of entertainment’s biggest names, like Martin Scorsese, Kevin Hart, and Mark Wahlberg entered into an intense bidding war to turn the article into a movie, until Ben Affleck and Fox came out on top. But that’s not all we have to look forward to. Wahlberg is also currently executive producing the HBO docuseries based on the article. It’s aptly called McMillions!
Sources: Insider, Slash Film, Daily Beast