And it’s not the entrants cheating either. I have blogged extensively on:

  1. what marketers should incorporate into their contests to prevent cheating, and
  2. how to spot cheaters in their sweepstakes.

This time it was the marketers …

How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions

Jerome Jacobson and his network of mobsters, psychics, strip club owners, and drug traffickers won almost every prize for 12 years until the FBI launched Operation ‘Final Answer.’

The article reads like a movie script as there are so many twists and turns.

The Big Screen

Sure enough … two days after the initial story broke, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon bought the movie rights.

If a Hollywood writer had pitched this story he would have been laughed out of every meeting as the concept is unbelievable, but life is stranger than fiction. In a few years, we will be able to watch this convoluted criminal conspiracy unfold in theatres. I know I will be there opening night, or maybe I’ll even win preview passes!

This story isn’t new. News outlets around the world reported on the story on August 22nd, 2001. With the planet currently so interconnected via the Internet and social media channels, the detailed retelling of the tale viralled.

“Of course the game is rigged.
Don’t let that stop you—
if you don’t play, you can’t win.”
Robert Heinlein

Sadly, I was not surprised to be reading on one employee in a trusted position slowly become corrupt, but what sickened me, what the impetus was for him to start gaming the sweepstakes in the first place.

I write about naïve marketers who do not believe cheating can happen in the sweepstakes they run, but now I am the naïve marketer.

I’ve known for years there were marketers who didn’t play by the rules. They would hand-select winners, continue to use the random drawing process until they garnered the results they were seeking, disqualify winners who they thought were ‘professional sweepstakers’ and generally not follow their own contest rules.

In my mind, those types of unethical people worked for small businesses or tiny marketing firms. It was unfathomable to me the marketers at such a prestigious agency, working on a 500 million dollar international sweepstakes, would ensure the ‘random’ results weren’t so random. I have told entrants for years to trust the large marketing companies and national brands as they would never allow anything to sully their reputation, their name, their brand, or worse, sales.

Sadly, I was wrong, very wrong.

During that 1995 prize draw, something happened that would change the game. According to Jacobson, when the computerized prize draws selected a factory location in Canada, Simon Marketing executives re-ran the program until it chose an area in the USA. Jacobson claimed he was ordered to ensure that no high-level prizes ever reached the Great White North. “I knew what we were doing in Canada was wrong,” Jacobson recalled. “Sooner or later somebody was going to be asking questions about why there were no winners in Canada.” Believing the game was rigged, he decided to cash in too.

In life, there are no guarantees.

“In this life nothing is certain,
but death and taxes.”
Benjamin Franklin

How can you ensure your sweepstakes and contests are run properly?

There is no way to guarantee your contest is 100% tamper-proof. Nothing in life is 100%. However, you can take precautions to get as close to 100% as you can.

ONE: Have two, or more, people in charge of the key elements of the promotion.

Better if each one is from a different company such as; legal counsel, sponsor representative, agency representative, etc. Plus, video record as much of the process as possible.

Although an independent auditor was dispatched to oversee the MacDonald’s contest game piece distribution process, she was not with the security manager 100% of the time. Plus he had the pieces on his person, not in a locked briefcase they both had to open to garner access.

If that had been the case, when Jerome Jacobson went to the restroom on the plane, he would have not had any pieces on him and only one of two keys needed to access the system. Taking the briefcase in with him would have been out of the question. Plus, splitting the staff between First and Economy class while travelling was also a mistake. They should have always flown together sitting side-by-side.

TWO: Do nothing to alter the results.

As previously stated, the reason Jacobson started down his path of criminality was the fact he felt the sweepstakes was rigged. If the McDonald’s sweepstakes had been run ethically and fairly, Ben and Matt wouldn’t have be bringing this crazy tale to the big screen.

It shows how little it may take to tip someone from honesty to dishonesty. Everyone’s moral compass is different. Some see life as very black and white. Others only see a million shades of gray. Most of us fall somewhere in between. Something like The Kinsey Scale, but for morals.

Look around your office. How well do you think you know the guy in the next cubical or the gal down the hall? You do not know who you are truly working with and where their moral compass lies. Based upon his professional background and his day-to-day behavior I bet Jerome Jacobson’s colleagues never questioned his honesty and integrity. He was the last person in the office they would think of if they heard the word scandal. Yet, he committed one of the biggest corporate crimes on record.

Therefore, stay the course. Let the chips fall where they may. Let random be random, even if your team, boss or client doesn’t like the results. Remind them what can happen if Lady Luck isn’t allowed to shine her light where she chooses.

Not only did it cast a shadow on all of McDonald’s giveaways, but I have also already had people message me questioning Tim Horton’s Roll Up The Rim annual contest.

THREE: Listen to your inner voice.

That gut feeling. The pit in your stomach. The sense that something isn’t quite right, but your rational mind can’t figure it out.

How many times in life did you know something, went down a path that was logical only to realize your inner voice was right all along?

This may be unconventional marketing advice, but I bet many of Jerome Jacobson’s colleagues and peers knew something wasn’t right but had no idea what it was. Something felt off.

The sweepstakes was supposed to be seeded, not unlike finding The Golden Ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar. It wasn’t until someone called the FBI that anyone realized the winners weren’t really random and ‘finding’ a winning game piece wasn’t luck.

Dent’s investigation had started in 2000 when a mysterious informant called the FBI and claimed that McDonald’s games had been rigged by an insider known as “Uncle Jerry.” The person revealed that “winners” paid Uncle Jerry for stolen game pieces in various ways.

Once the full story came to light, I wonder how many of those that had instinctual alarm bells go off recalled their intuitive hits?

No Purchase Legal Ways to Win Randomly

Can someone win a sweepstakes without purchasing a product AND not cheating?


It’s in the rules. (Which every giveaway should have, no matter how small.)

In Canada, there is a legal requirement for a No Purchase Entry Option and in the United States, there are Second Chance Drawings.

  • Read the rules.

The number one thing I teach marketers to do is write contest rules that are legally airtight. Ones that will stand up in court, in their favor. I teach entrants the converse. Always read the rules. You do not know what the entry parameters otherwise.

The well-written contest rules will always outline the following:

  • who is eligible to enter,
  • the entry period,
  • how to enter,
  • number of entries allowed,
  • the no purchase entry option and/or the way to enter the second chance drawing.

Those are the factors I scan for when reading legalese. Depending on the difficulty of the No Purchase Entry Option, no one said it had to be easy, and my workload, I may or not take advance of this entry method.

Be aware that no matter the entry method, they must be weighted the same in the final drawings.

  • Support the sponsor.

I also teach it’s important to always support the sponsor. Companies do not host giveaways out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it for a wide variety of marketing reasons, but the bottom line is to increase sales. If a sweepstakes has game pieces or PIN Codes, I always buy a few bottles, packages or boxes.

Not only do I get to enjoy what I bought, but I also get a chance to win.

  • PIN Code hunt.

You have to be a bit crazy to enter sweepstakes as a hobby. (I call it the good crazies.) Since it seems only junk or fast foods have giveaways in or on the packaging, it is just not healthy for me to consume as much as I want to enter.

SIDE NOTE: I was very happy when bananas and pineapples had coded stickers on them this past year!

During the week, on recycle day, I combine my morning walk and collecting coded packages from my neighbor’s bins. My version of Plogging. Plus much cleaner than when Evelyn Ryan and Dortha Schaefer combed the city dumb for ‘qualies’ (qualifying UPC off packaging) in the 1950s as outlined in The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio.

Some find what I do disgusting, but to me, it is winning opportunities being thrown away. Similar to Evelyn and Dortha, I save my winnings for the holidays to give as gifts. I have already filled the kid’s stockings with the fantastic branded swag and small prizes I have won. Not only is it fun for me, but a fabulous way to save money.

Both Sides of the Coin

There is good and bad in everyone. Light and shadow. Yin and Yang. Two sides to every coin.

The trick is to be aware there are two sides. Not be so naive to believe cheating doesn’t happen, on both sides. When money or valuable items are involved, there will always be someone that tries to game the system. You need to have that thought at top of mind when creating a sweepstakes. Put in fail-safes for both sides, document and record as much as possible, double-check everything, then keep vetting the entire process.

Nothing is 100% foolproof, but you can get darn close if you take the right steps.

Have you ever witnessed contest tampering?

NOTE: This post was originally written for Neal Schaffer’s social media marketing blog