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The Epic Discovery and Dismantling of a Billion Dollar Monopoly Scam – 'McMillions'
February 3, 2020  | By David Hinckley

Anyone who ate a Big Mac between 1989 and 2001 – you can admit it, there's no shame – remembers the McDonald's Monopoly game.

What these Big Mac fans may not remember is that it turned out the game was rigged, and the folks who rigged it scammed some $24 million over a dozen years before they finally, almost by accident, got caught.

None of that is a spoiler for McMillions, a six-part HBO documentary that premieres Monday at 10 p.m. ET and recounts how the fraud was finally uncovered.

The story isn't any secret. It was covered at some length in the media, except that it happened just before 9/11. So a story on a small matter like game prize fraud was pretty much subsumed for several months, by which time it had become old news.

It resurfaces now as a true-crime documentary, full of twists that could come right out of a CBS police procedural. Only occasionally is it tinted by the fact that real-life police work often involves nuts and bolts operations that aren't generally considered dynamic and action-packed enough to make it into scripted TV shows.

McMillions compensates for the obligation to include those matters by digging up a colorful cast of real-life characters led by FBI agent Doug Mathews.

Mathews, a prominent voice in the documentary, recalls how in the late '80s, he was assigned to the FBI's Jacksonville office, where nothing much ever seemed to happen.

One day he saw a Post-it note on his mentor's computer, referencing a caller who said the McDonald's game had been hijacked by someone who was steering the big prizes to friends, family, and paying acquaintances.

Mathews took the note, with permission, and called the informant, who provided clues that led to evidence that several of the biggest prizes – up to a million dollars, a lot of money in those days – had gone to people who were related to each other.

Given how many contest entries were distributed, the odds of this were about the same as the odds of being simultaneously struck by lightning and showered by an active volcano. So Mathews began poking around, and one of his and the FBI's first dramas revolve around whether, when, and how much to tell McDonald's.

The fear was that if it were an inside job, telling the company would tip off the perp.

The FBI doesn't get everything quite right, but it does make its way toward the seeming epicenter of the scam.

This not only introduces us to some interesting characters but humanizes FBI agents in a way that multiple scripted series have not.

Mathews and several of his colleagues could be the slightly quirky guy next door, not the automatons of FBI lore.

It's also true that keeping this fraud in motion for 12 years represented a significant criminal feat, and it's clear from the beginning that there was nothing inevitable about it crumbling.

To watch it happen gives true-crime documentaries a good name. 

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