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The McDonalds Monopoly Fraud (2014) (priceonomics.com)
184 points by ValG on Nov 29, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments



So, McDonalds bundled lottery tickets with all their products. The lottery structure was set up to deceive people who didn't think about it too hard, by making buyers collect sets in which one out of the set was orders of magnitude rarer than the others, but getting the common ones would make them feel like they had made progress. Then, for six years, every single one of the large prizes gets stolen by an employee.

Why are companies allowed to bundle lottery tickets with their products? It's no less of a tax on stupidity than the standalone lotteries are.


Purchase is not required to play these games. You can walk into a McDonald's and ask for a game piece and they have to give you one.


You have to send off a handwritten letter with a SASE, actually: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/16/mcdonalds-monopoly-...


So for the cost of two stamps, you could buy a Hashbrown and give the food to a hobo.


Nope you have to send a self addressed stamped envelope to get one. You can't just stroll by a McDonalds for them.

Source: My siblings and I sent in about 60 self addressed stamped envelopes between us one year a long time ago. We won a lot of Egg McMuffins and not much else.


That sounds like little more than a theoretical loophole. Almost no one will pay the time and fuel cost to go to a McDonald's if they aren't going to eat anything, and McDonald's knows this.


Assuming they have to walk anywhere. People have tried rigging games like this by sending thousands of letters to the address to request entry.


Trivially, there are tremendous numbers of people who, by dint of their normal day-to-day, need expend no effort to get to McDonalds. Have you other objections that can be addressed?


People are buying the food. The "lottery ticket" you get is just a marketing gimmick, not an actual game of chance in exchange for money.


I'm sure that's technically true, but I don't think all members of staff know all the rules like this. More likely is that they've been taught "customers get a piece when they buy something".


If this is the game I remember the pieces were attached to drink cups and fry containers, so staff wouldn't have to consciously think about handing out pieces at all.


IIRC correctly, McDonalds did have "loose" game pieces that were given out on request. This was the early 90's in SoCal.


I doubt any players didn't know that there were a few rare winning pieces, it's pretty clear when you've got 5 Park Places that it's the Boardwalk piece that's the rare one. I realized this even as a teen (back when I still ate at McD's regularly).

Though having an employee steal the winning prize does make the game much less fair.


Then there's the woman with a Stanford Ph.D. in statistics who has won million-dollar lottery prizes 4 times - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2023514/Joan-R-Ginth...


She has a friend (Anna Morales) who's won a number of smaller prizes too[1]. Seems a fairly unlikely co-incidence.

There's the Canadian statistician who found a weakness in the algorithm producing "random" scratchie tickets[2].

[1] http://www.philly.com/philly/news/nation_world/How_lottery_l...

[2] http://www.wired.com/2011/01/ff_lottery/


>Jacobson oversaw a security process that began at a printing plant where pieces were made, separated by value and stored in a vault. He was responsible for transporting those pieces...

Thinking a system is secure just because there is a process in place, however careless the design, seems like a recurring theme (society?).

I wonder if it's a psychological bias (or lack of security awareness) in the sense that you'd rather trust an system you can observe than a secure black box. Or maybe it is the fact that the workings of the system in place can act as a distraction to its possible flaws?


> Thinking a system is secure just because there is a process in place,

The importance of the process is mainly to allow passing of responsability to someone lower down the chain or sideways ("competent external contractors we hired"), then insurance takes care of the rest.


> Thinking a system is secure just because there is a process in place

ISO certification in a nutshell


More like, people who misunderstand what ISO 9001 certification means in a nutshell.

ISO-9001 is not meant to certify quality, but to certify that your quality management meets certain criteria, so that relevant information is recorded and made available for people to judge if if meets their requirements.


It's perfectly fine to put strychnine in the guacamole, as long as you document it.


The $1mm donation to St Jude's was pretty classy, even given the crooked scam. I hope it helps some kids.


If you were cynical you could also say that's a pretty good way to give yourself the image of a good guy Robin Hood, for when the justice eventually catches up to you.


Well it's pretty easy to donate money when it isn't yours, and it was much easier to anonymously donate the winning piece than it was to organise someone you knew to take it and get a cut.


You don't get to have a brand as profitable as McDs by quibbling over minor gifts to charities


The gift was not by McDonald's but by the scammer!


The initial gift was the scammer. The decision to continue paying it out was McDs gift.


I think St. Jude's is a great nonprofit. That said, I heard a few years ago that the charity is literally overfunded.

I don't know if it's true anymore, but I wish people would look into charities before giving that much needed money.

I don't know why people who have the ability to give to charities--never seem to look into the financials?

I know what I said is sac religious, and I'm probally wrong.

I just know of a lot of smaller nonprofits that need money. They don't incorporate in delware. The principal founders don't make much money. I probally shouldn't have said anything?


Charity Navigator ranks St Judes with 89 points out of 100.

They spend 68% of their donations on program expenses, 10% to administrative overhead and 20% on fundraising expenses.

http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary...

I'm not sure how a charity that funds a research hospital for children can even be "overfunded", medical research is one field that seems capable of absorbing infinite money.


See also: the discussion thread on Reddit, where the submission there likely led to the submission here: https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/3um3zh/til_t...


For the current NFL promotion they have game pieces on the medium drink, large fries and big mac (and some other sandwiches/main items but not all of them). So if you order the big mac meal with an upgraded fries but regular drink you get 3 pieces but if, like me, you unhack the system by ordering a quarter pounder meal with upgraded drink only you get zero game pieces.


Does McDonalds do monopoly anymore? I noticed the article is from 2014 but this year they've been doing a similar promotion but centered around the NFL.


In the United States it's typically in September or October, in 2015 it was apparently replaced with the Minions Sweepstakes promotion.


I'm in the US and I haven't seen any Minions Sweepstakes promotions, just NFL stuff for the past few months.


IIRC, the Minions promotion was in August or September. I don't usually eat fast food, but was in a huge push at work for a major migration, and just needed something "quick". I know I created an account for it, but it was so low-security for me I didn't enter it into KeePass, so can't even tell for sure when it took place.


We definitely had Minions but it was a lot more scaled back.


Haha, "Minions" and "scaled back" in the same sentence. They infected dozens of brands, in the US at least. See https://medium.com/@hassanisms/the-minions-marketing-team-co... for some links and a satirical take on opportunities they missed.


They did it this year in Australia.


... Where we've also lost the Flurry out of our McFlurry's


And Germany! I'm on my third Big 'n' Tasty this week! :D

They also have shrimp and a really good cherry pie thing that also come with pieces...


And NZ


And Canada


There were also game pieces distributed in Sunday newspapers.


Somewhat unrelated, but there is a great documentary on Michael Larson; who figured out a software randomness flaw in the game show Press Your Luck, and exploited it live on TV to the tune of $110,000. In that day, $110,000 was an obscene amount of money to win on a gameshow. No game show was awarding even close to that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzNMCXWCZzQ


The big thing about the Press Your Luck incident that people seem to overlook is that finding the flaw was half of the con, exploiting the flaw was the much harder part. (that is, getting selected to being onto the show, answering the toss-up questions, and getting the patterns/timing correct). It was more-or-less luck that everything worked correctly, and as noted in the documentary, the con almost failed at each point.

The Monopoly incident in comparison is just boring manipulation of insider information.


> and getting the patterns/timing correct

As a kid, I was banned from an arcade in my home town for being a bit too good on a certain ticket giving arcade machine (probably around 1995)

The manager was having to reload the machine with tickets too often when I was on it, it actually got to the point where she was standing behind me, watching me win the jackpot probably 2 out of 3 games... after winning several hundred dollars worth of prizes/tickets, I was awarded my tickets and asked not to return.

I actually did my Christmas shopping that year at the prize counter with tickets.


Can you explain the con and how to exploit it? Seems interesting.


Wikipedia has a good written summary of the con: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Larson

The linked documentary is well worth watching, though.


Agreed about the documentary. I don't think it's fair to describe this as a "con", though. Larson merely spotted a consistency in the game, and played it to maximum effect. All perfectly within the rules and regulations, no deception or "con" involved - and hence no reason for CBS not to pay out, which they did.

As the documentary points out, they just didn't think that anyone would be able to "aim and hit" the square they wanted - but they were mistaken, and paid for that complacency. They did not make the mistake a second time.


Thank you, I tired watching the video, but wasn't that invested in the whole thing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Larson#Preparations). That was pretty straight-forward and kinda simple. I wonder why the selections and big money squares were not randomized, could it had been a computing limitation?


> I wonder why the selections and big money squares were not randomized, could it had been a computing limitation?

Keep in mind that this happened in 1984. The board squares were physical panels, and the panel selection software was analog.

In gaming, a random outcome is one the player can't accurately predict or influence. The Press Your Luck board at the time fit that definition, but Larson proved that was not a safe assumption.


Suggested viewing: documentary about that day https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzNMCXWCZzQ


Also mostly unrelated, but a fun read... here is an article from 1986 about Frank Maggio beating a scratch off promotion to the tune of millions of dollars through a combination of finding a pattern in the way they were printed, and the loose rules of the game: http://articles.latimes.com/1986-01-19/news/mn-1227_1_scratc...

Another article I read said he later went on to settle for "undisclosed amount of millions of dollars".


I don't think they are at all related.

Michael Larson wasn't a theft. He played fair and square and got no unfair advantages. He broke no rules and collected his winnings.

The McDonalds guy just stole a bunch of pieces, gave back the money he made, and went to jail.

They have nothing to do with each other.


That reminds me of a situation on the Price is Right where someone figured out the pattern.

http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a7922/price-is-right-pe...


Thanks for that, this was my favorite show when I was young, and I thought I was pretty good at the prices; I'm glad to know that there was a pattern behind it, so there was something to be good at. :)


Odd and also somewhat unrelated, Peter Tomarken is the brother of my next door neighbor growing up. I used to go over to their house and have tea. I knew his brother was a game show host, but didn't know what show or anything... weird to see that pop up.


It seems like he got a fair punishment for this. I guess for me its more along the lines of victimless crime. If you gobbling down burgers to try and win money knowing the odds, you clearly aren't that bright to begin with.


Putting everything else aside for a moment: are you saying that people who "aren't that bright" can't be victims?


More that there's no material effect to remove the rare prizes on a lottery that are only worth a penny on the dollar combined.


By that reasoning you should stop paying your taxes, since everybody else can compensate by paying a tiny, imperceptible amount more.


I didn't say the theft was justified. But I would agree that nonpayment of taxes is not a crime that "victimizes" hundreds of millions of people.

The main value of the product is the food. Even if all the prizes were stolen, I'm not sure if there would be a 'victim' in the consumer.


So scamming millions of dollar is OK, as long as there are enough victims to absorb that cost?


I think most of the people arrested for this ended up serving very little time in jail, and even he was released after serving a fraction of his original sentence.




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