McMillions scam: Could it happen again and how are promotions run safely?

If you heard the phrase ‘promotional security’, would your eyes glaze over? Would you have any idea what it meant?

Prior to speaking to Jeremy Stern, the founder of a company called PromoVeritas – truth in promotions, he tells me – involved in just that, I’d say yes to the first and no to the second.

In fact, I suggest to him rather uncharitably, it sounds a bit like his job is to read the terms and conditions so no one else has to.

In the 1990s, Jerry Jacobson, the head of security at the marketing agency which ran the McDonald’s Monopoly, stole 60 high-value winning pieces in a $24m con

Over the course of a 48-minute Zoom interview, Stern, 59, an energetic career marketeer does his best to correct my ignorance.

There are stories of breaking into Cadbury factories in the middle of the night, delivering chocolate bars to every postcode in the UK, investigating cheating on Facebook polls and a tale of a £100,000 bill involving £2 whiskey coupons.

He’d paid out €2,000 to someone in Belgium the morning of our interview to someone who won a Britvic promotion.

He does still read the terms and conditions – but there are other ways to describe what the company does. 

They’re troubleshooters, referees, private detectives in some instances, and run 1,500 promotions a year in 50 countries.

Clients include Cadbury, Kellogg’s, Trebor Mint, Barclays and O2.  

‘On Channel 4 they called me a cross between Willy Wonka and the Easter Bunny’, he says.

'A cross between Willy Wonka and the Easter Bunny': PromoVeritas' founder and chief executive Jeremy Stern

‘A cross between Willy Wonka and the Easter Bunny’: PromoVeritas’ founder and chief executive Jeremy Stern

‘Part of our job is we try to help marketeers who tend not to know an awful lot about price promotions. 

‘If you’re in marketing the big exciting bit is the advertising, it’s creating amazing adverts, the promotions are often the bolt-on which they leave to the junior member of the team to sort out’, he says.

‘We’re generally not the creative guys. That’ll be done by the brand or their advertising agency. 

‘We do the nuts and bolts, we’re the power behind the throne. So crazy ideas can be done safely.’

The idea that promotions, competitions or prize draws might be in need of security might seem a little over the top. 

But over the last few months, hundreds of thousands of people have watched the retelling of a story which demonstrated exactly what can go wrong.

Available on Sky, ‘McMillions’ is the tale of the $24million fraud which saw the head of security at the marketing agency in charge of running the McDonald’s Monopoly sell off the winning pieces for more than a decade.

‘Uncle Jerry’, as the culprit Jerry Jacobson was known, stole 60 pieces in total and his exploits meant there were almost no legitimate winners of the $1million jackpot through the 1990s.

The trial of Jacobson was overshadowed by the events of 9/11, which took place the next day. 

The six-part documentary McMillons was recently released on Sky

The six-part documentary McMillons was recently released on Sky

It means the series brings the story of the con to an audience which might not have been aware of it before.

Stern, who founded PromoVeritas just a year after the scam was exposed in an FBI sting operation which saw the Monopoly run for another year despite McDonald’s being aware it was compromised, was at the video games developer SEGA at the time, having previously been at Coca Cola.

‘I’ve known about it (the fraud) for pretty much two decades’, he says. 

‘Was it an inspiration for me setting up PromoVeritas? It was definitely a factor.’

He told me in an earlier email he was ‘astounded’ by what he saw in the documentary. 

‘The global security director for McDonald’s was on that show’, he says, ‘and he said the failing was it didn’t actually know what Simon Marketing, the agency, were doing.

‘McDonald’s said, you sort it out, and they didn’t check. There was no understanding or oversight at all.’

There were no controls or checks on where the biggest winners were located, most were living 25 miles from Jacobson’s home, and no verification of the winnings, he says.

While he’s careful not to disparage McDonald’s now, ‘we absolutely know they’ve a safe and secure system, they’ve definitely learned their lessons’, he’s less convinced others have. 

That’s why he thinks another McMillions-style con could happen here.

‘I don’t think there have been many lessons learned from McMillions because the vast majority of promotions are still run without independent scrutiny.’

Something like McMillions could easily happen in the UK. Running big-ticket prize promotions is enormously complex and a lot of companies really haven’t learnt the lessons McMillions should have taught them 

Jeremy Stern – PromoVeritas

There are plenty of examples where things go wrong. 

There was one situation where thieves took advantage of a coffee promotion by stealing empty packs from the printers in Leeds and redeeming codes before they had even hit the shelves.

Or one involving a whiskey brand, where 3,000 £2 whiskey coupons sent out by email ended up costing more than £100,000 after people printed off piles of them.

These types of terms could be invaluable if an event takes place which can put the prizes in jeopardy, such as the coronavirus pandemic.  

‘People often do not appreciate the value of what they’re getting involved in’, he says. 

This is why he has to break into chocolate factories in the middle of the night to make sure promotional eggs go to the right place.

And then there are the loopholes used against consumers. Expiry dates, non-transferable rewards, a pledge only to give away all the prizes if all codes are redeemed. 

PromoVeritas worked with Cadbury on a 2018 promotion which saw those who picked up white chocolate creme eggs in shops win a cash prize. As part of overseeing the promotion, Stern broke into Cadbury's factory in the middle of the night

PromoVeritas worked with Cadbury on a 2018 promotion which saw those who picked up white chocolate creme eggs in shops win a cash prize. As part of overseeing the promotion, Stern broke into Cadbury’s factory in the middle of the night

Stern sees himself and PromoVeritas as being on the side of consumers, he says, despite being paid by the companies running the promotions.

‘Weasel things on the prizes we definitely don’t like. We’ll often talk to clients and get them to throw in extra money, if it’s tickets to a concert then £50 for travel. If it’s a trip to Greece, throw in £500 worth of spending money.

‘We’ve had situations where people can’t actually go on a free holiday.’

But despite what can at times feels like a wild west of words and a minefield of misdirection, Stern, having read the terms and conditions of most of them, is broadly happy with the rules. 

Provided everyone plays by them.

‘In the UK we have the most liberal sales promotion laws in Europe. Do I think it’s good? Yes. Do I think the small number of rules we have should be enforced more? Yes I do.

‘Because if brands and companies don’t follow the limited number of rules that we have, then the Government’s going to step in with its size 15 boots and make life a lot worse for us.

‘Our passion is making sure people are aware of the rules so there’s no excuse for breaking them.’

Perhaps you have recently felt inspired to enter a competition after reading the story of a man who has won 23 free holidays, a car and World Cup final tickets. 

Now you know how many of these reputable competitions are checked before launch – perhaps now extra cautiously thanks to events like McMillions. 

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