The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
A Happy Meal it’s not: The recent six-part HBO docuseries McMillions serves up the convoluted, unsavory, but engrossing story of the Monopoly game scam of the 1990s that duped America’s largest fast-food chain out of $24 million.
To boost sales, McDonald’s hired an outside marketing firm to run a game requiring people to collect peel-off Monopoly pieces to win cash and gifts. But in 2001, the FBI began investigating after an anonymous tipster claimed someone was rigging the game. The tip cited multiple winners within one family, with someone named “Uncle Jerry” masterminding the chicanery.
With a McFlurry of colorful background and recent interviews, clips, and reenactments, each episode ends with a tease and cliffhanger. The series eventually reveals whether anyone within McDonald’s was culpable and who the ringleader and his cronies were. Not until the final episode do we see how he stole game tokens from a supposedly secure system and finally learn the informant’s identity.
FBI agent Doug Mathews, an affable smart aleck, chattily recounts much of how the fraud transpired and how agents stopped it. He apparently reveled in his role as a young undercover agent cooking up ideas to help solve the crimes, but etiquette lessons would help him tell his tale without profanity.
McDonald’s, more concerned about potential loss of its reputation than the money, worked quietly with the FBI to set up stings to con the cons into confessions. Perhaps because more than two decades have passed since the story broke, all the fraudsters seem quite willing to talk about their roles, including relatives of an Italian mafioso who helped run the ruse but died in a car crash.
A menu of interviews with FBI agents, an assistant U.S. attorney, and the scammers themselves evoke incredulity on many fronts, especially over how so many ordinary people could join the deception. They willingly paid for and accepted purloined game pieces from Uncle Jerry or his cohorts, then smiled about it on national TV when they won, with no evident misgivings.
The overwhelming and underlying rationalization seems to be that McDonald’s was awarding the prizes anyway, so what did it matter if someone “diverted” the money to someone else? Most of the fraudulent winners acknowledge they did wrong but leave the impression the real bummer was getting caught. The mention of any moral standard is glaringly absent.
If viewers can stomach periodic bad language, including multiple F-bombs, watching this entertaining exposé may inspire a gut check, asking yourself what you’d do if someone proffered you a million hamburgled bucks.
—This story has been updated to correct the name of FBI agent Doug Mathews