FBI arrests eight in scheme to steal McDonald’s Monopoly game prizes
WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal authorities working with McDonald’s broke up a criminal ring they say rigged the popular Monopoly and ”Who Wants to be a Millionaire” games played by millions of the fast-food chain’s customers over the past six years.
The FBI alleged Tuesday that the ring fixed winners of $1 million and other big-money prizes who then shared the cash with members of the group. In all, the ring ”won” more than $13 million in prizes. Authorities said it was not clear whether there were ever any legitimate winners of large prizes in McDonald’s Monopoly and ”Who Wants to be a Millionaire” games.
Eight people have been arrested so far. At the center of the scheme was Jerome Jacobson, 58, a security employee of Simon Marketing Inc., a company hired by McDonald’s to handle game promotions and security, authorities said. Jacobson had almost total control over the distribution of winning game pieces, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Jacksonville, Fla.
”In producing and distributing game pieces, Simon is responsible for insuring the integrity of the game,” the complaint said.
As advertised, the $1 million prizes can be won by either collecting game pieces from drink cups and french fry boxes at McDonald’s or in Sunday newspaper inserts.
But the complaint alleges that Jacobson embezzled winning game pieces and distributed them to friends and business associates who found others to take the winning pieces and claim the prizes. The ”winners” then paid money back to Jacobson and his associates, the complaint said.
In many instances, the winners allegedly turned over the first $50,000 of their prize money to Jacobson, who was arrested Tuesday in Georgia.
”This fraud scheme denied McDonald’s customers a fair and equal chance of winning,” said Attorney General John Ashcroft. ”Those involved in this type of corruption will find out that breaking the law is no game.”
Authorities said that no McDonald’s Corp. employees were involved and that McDonald’s assisted the investigation. At the FBI’s request, McDonald’s ran a Monopoly game in July that helped investigators nab a fraudulent $1 million winner.
Jack M. Greenberg, McDonald’s chairman and chief executive officer, said, ”Customer confidence is at the very heart of McDonald’s business. We’re determined that nothing gets between us and our customers, and we’re outraged when anyone tries to breach that trust.”
Greenberg said millions of McDonald’s customers won free food, cash and other prizes but many of the biggest prizes went to the fraudsters. To make it up to customers, McDonald’s will give away $1 million and $100,000 prizes at randomly selected restaurants.
McDonald’s has terminated its contract with Simon Marketing.
All eight people arrested were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and felony complaints were filed against them in federal court in Florida. The FBI is also looking for a number of other suspects.
Jacobson, who lives in Lawrenceville, Ga., made his first appearance in federal court in Atlanta on Tuesday. U.S. Magistrate Gerrilyn Brill set bail at $1 million, but Jacobson must post only $100,000 to get out of jail. Jacobson, who was not required to enter a plea, told the court he would hire his own lawyer.
A woman who answered the telephone at Simon Marketing in Los Angeles said, ”Our official comment is, ‘No comment.”’
The FBI first learned of the alleged scheme in April 2000 through an informant, senior officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The bureau contacted McDonald’s in May. The company provided investigators with a list of winners from 1995 to the present. The names matched up with the names provided by the informant, according to the complaint.
Jacobson and an accountant from a nationally recognized public accounting firm were the only two people who had custody of the winning game pieces, the complaint said. FBI officials declined to identify the accountant or say whether he was the informant.
Instead of randomly distributing the winning pieces to regional publishers and distribution centers, Jacobson gave them to recruiters, the complaint alleges.
Through surveillance and wiretaps, the FBI identified the alleged recruiters, many of whom recruited family members as fraudulent winners.
Earlier this month, FBI agents posing as a production crew hired by McDonald’s videotaped one of the scam winners describing how he had obtained an ”instant winner” game piece from a magazine he purchased.
Phone taps showed numerous phone calls between a man who allegedly recruited the winner and Jacobson, the complaint said.
For more than 10 years, McDonald’s has offered big prizes – $1 million in cash, diamonds or gold, cars and vacations – to Monopoly game winners. Customers collect game pieces attached to drink cups or other packaging materials and use them to fill game boards available at McDonald’s restaurants.
Besides Jacobson, those arrested included: Linda L. Baker, 49, of Westminster, S.C.; Noah D. ”Dwight” Baker, 49, of Westminster, S.C.; John F. Davis, 44, of Granbury, Texas; Andrew M. Glomb, 58, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Michael L. Hoover, 56, of Westerly, R.I.; Ronald E. Hughey, 56, of Anderson, S.C.; and Brenda S. Phenis, 50, of Fair Play, S.C.
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