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McDonald’s Monopoly Scam McMillions True Story
Anyone who watched TV in the 1990s remembers McDonald’s Monopoly game and its promise of lavish rewards, including luxury cars and a million dollar grand prize. But what’s less well-known is the fact that between 1995 and 2000, almost none of the big-name prizes were won honestly. It’s a story that’s flown more or less under the radar for nearly two decades, but with the help of a brand-new docuseries (and an upcoming film from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) the McDonald’s Monopoly game fraud is about to get some of the attention denied it all those years ago.
HBO’s six-part docuseries McMillions, which debuts Monday night, tells the true story behind the long-running heist. The game worked by aping the Monopoly board game, with players collecting tokens at McDonald’s locations as well as in newspapers and magazines. Minor prizes, offering lucky winners a free side of fries or the like, were relatively easy to come by. But the tokens for major prizes were about as rare as winning lottery tickets. After receiving a tip off in 2000, Jacksonville’s FBI office realized that instead of the random group of winners that the game should have produced, the major prizes were often going to people connected by family and friend networks. With the help of Mafia associates, it seemed that someone working close to the game’s production—a man ominously known as Uncle Jerry—had been stealing and distributing winning pieces.
The criminal trial that sprang out of this $24 million crime was, like many other stories (remember Gary Condit?), understandably overshadowed by the September 11th terrorist attacks. It wasn’t until 2012 that McMillions co-director James Lee Hernandez first heard of the story, despite the fact that he was well-versed in the Monopoly promotion. “I loved that game as a kid, like most kids who grew up in the 90s,” says Hernandez, who worked under the golden arches in his first job after turning 16. Still, he only learned of the little-covered crime via a trivia post on Reddit. (The story later gained wider attention in 2018, after it was the subject of a longform article for The Daily Beast by Jeff Maysh.)
“I was laying in bed going through Reddit before I fall asleep, just killing time till I dozed off,” Hernandez says. “And I stumbled upon an article or a tagline that was a TIL: ‘Today I learned nobody really won the McDonald’s Monopoly game.’”
But save for a local Jacksonville newspaper article, he couldn’t find much reporting about the case online. So the writer, producer, and director put in a Freedom of Information Act request to learn more about the case, and reached out to the prosecutors and FBI agents involved. “When I talked to the agents, they all said, ‘This is one of our favorite cases we ever worked, and no one’s ever contacted us about it,’” Hernandez says. “So at that point I knew I had something.”
Hernandez also reached out to writer and filmmaker Brian Lazarte, and the two would go onto co-direct McMillions. Initially, Lazarte had some understandable doubts. The Monopoly game fraud is a long-solved case, with little opportunity to pull in armchair sleuths as Serial and The Jinx did. There’s no celebrity at the heart of this story, as there was in OJ: Made in America or The Mind of Aaron Hernandez. It’s not based on a crime that dominated newspaper headlines, like Amanda Knox or The Disappearance of Madeline McCann. And it’s not a bloody, shocking crime likely to hook and horrify viewers, like Don’t F*ck With Cats. The McDonald’s Monopoly fraud featured people stealing from a multi-billion dollar brand money that the company already intended to give away. Making the story gripping—and demonstrating how the years-long heist wasn’t the victimless crimes it seemed—could be a challenge.
“The first thought that I had was, ‘Obviously, this is a great idea, but how are the characters?’” Lazarte says. “‘Are the people telling the story worth putting on film, putting in a documentary? Would this be a feature documentary?’”
But the very first episode makes it clear that the story was full of big personalities. There’s FBI agent Doug Matthews, who worked the case early in his career and fills the series’ early episodes with quotes far more colorful than those generally dropped by cop commentators on true crime series. His pre-McDonald’s healthcare fraud beat “bored [him] to death,” Matthews says in the film, and admitting that he was drawn to the Monopoly case because he thought that it’s “got to be more fun than this shit that I’m looking at.” Eager to take the case’s “fun meter” even higher, he devised an opportunity to do some undercover work, posing as a filmmaker in order to interview former “winners” on camera. (In assembling his phony crew, Matthews decided to be the director—”because they don’t do shit.”)
Special Agent Doug Matthews
Then there’s Robin Colombo, who married into the infamous Colombo crime family and who offers frank commentary on both the inner workings of the McDonald’s scheme and life as mafia bride. (Her husband, Jerry Colombo, re-christened the strip club he owned the Church of the Fuzzy Bunny’s and added Bible readings in order to subvert anti-nudity laws.)
“There’s a great deal of levity and humor that our characters put out there,” Lazarte says, “And we really wanted to embrace that.”
But despite the colorful characters involved in the story, the tone darkens as the series follows the hunt for Uncle Jerry—who would turn out to be an ex-cop called Jerry Jacobson, who headed security for the marketing firm that ran the Monopoly promotion. In the documentary, one million-dollar “winner,” a struggling single mother, shares her story of mortgaging her home to buy a winning chip and grappling to maintain the cascading lies involved in the scheme, all while fearing Uncle Jerry’s watchful eye.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, these people were stealing from McDonald’s. They’re a billion dollar corporation. They’re not hurting anybody,’” Lazarte says. “But we really wanted and hoped that especially by the end of the series that people realize that, that one small act and one small choice, could actually have pretty significant consequences that even affect many people today.”
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.