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FBI Arrests Eight in Rigging Of McDonald’s Prize Giveaways

By Eric Lichtblau
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON -- With countless McDonald’s french fries and sodas came the chance for riches: snack on a Happy Meal, play our latest promotional game and walk away a McMillionaire.

There was just one problem: The games were rigged.

Acting on an informant’s tip, the FBI arrested eight people Tuesday in connection with an elaborate scheme to allegedly plant big-money game cards in the hands of fake “winners,” who claimed the prizes and then split the proceeds with their recruiters.

Authorities alleged that the conspirators raked in about $13 million in fraudulent games dating back to 1995, including fast-food versions of “Monopoly” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

At the center of the scam, officials said, was a Georgia man who worked for the Los Angeles-based marketing company that has run McDonald’s restaurants’ many promotional contests around the world in recent years. Known as “Uncle Jerry” to the family and friends whom he allegedly brought into the con, 58-year-old Jerome Jacobson confiscated the most valuable game cards -- offering such prizes as $1 million or a Dodge Viper -- and passed them along to his associates before the cards could be randomly distributed at McDonald’s restaurants nationwide, authorities said.

No one at McDonald’s was implicated in the scheme, and the Chicago-based company cooperated fully in the FBI’s yearlong investigation, officials said.

In fact, McDonald’s agreed at the FBI’s request to go ahead with the latest incarnation of its Monopoly giveaway this summer even after investigators suspected that Jacobson’s ring had rigged the game to claim two more $1 million prizes. As customers played millions of game cards with no real chance of winning the biggest prizes, the FBI was conducting court-approved wiretaps on the alleged conspirators in the past six weeks to gather evidence against them.

McDonald’s spokesman Walt Riker said that attracting the fast-food icon’s 23 million daily customers to a game the company knew was rigged was not a step McDonald’s took lightly.

“But our No. 1 goal was to get the bad guys, which meant fully cooperating with the FBI ... and working together with them to put the trap in place,” Riker said in an interview. “I think the customers will realize that we did the right thing.”

“We were scammed, along with our customers,” he said.

McDonald’s said that “to right this wrong” to its customers, the company will begin yet another promotion -- this one, a $10 million “instant giveaway” that will run from Aug. 30 through Sept. 3.

“McDonald’s is committed to giving our customers a chance to win every dollar that has been stolen by this criminal ring,” company Chairman Jack M. Greenberg said.