Over dinner late one night last month, a handful of wealthy Californian businessmen came up with a groundbreaking idea. Each had made many millions in their fields of technology and property investment, and were looking for ways to give some of it back to their community. A month later, the anonymous group launched their big project Hidden Cash, a scavenger hunt for the modern day, in which they hid money in public places for strangers to find.
The main benefactor started hiding envelopes of cash, usually $100 bills around San Francisco, and posted online clues of their whereabouts to followers of their Twitter account, @HiddenCash. They gave away $2,000 in the first weekend, and quickly gained not only followers but also requests for where to visit next. Having expanded the project to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Mexico City, a total of $20,000 has now been given away.
The mystery man behind the money trail is Jason Buzi, a property investor from the Bay Area. He announced that Hidden Cash planned to expand its treasure hunt to the UK.
Mr. Buzi, 43, who is uncomfortable with being labeled the ‘Robin Hood of Twitter’, made his millions in property development and describes himself as a member of the richest one per cent of Americans. He made half a million dollars on just one house last year, and says he earned “much more than he could have ever expected” on a few more.
Mr. Buzi says he was “by no means wealthy” growing up, and started looking for ways to make money at a young age. At 12, he was buying cookies for $1 from the local supermarket and selling them on to his neighbours for $3. By 19, he owned a car dealership; and when he reached his 20s, he was dealing in diamonds.
“I’ve been entrepreneurial from a young age, but for me being an entrepreneur is about being creative, not greedy,” he says. “Real estate can be a greedy business. There were aspects of my personality – my generosity and creativity – that weren’t coming out [in my day job], and that’s why I started this. If I was in it for the money I would be doing real estate and nothing else. There’s no religious agenda, no political agenda, no business agenda and we’re not promoting or selling anything. People, particularly in the US, have a hard time getting their head around that.”
Not that it’s deterred the treasure hunters. On the morning Buzi visited Chicago, he tweeted the cryptic clue: “What do Life of Pi, Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe all have in common?” The answer – Castaways. Cash-filled envelopes had been hidden along North Avenue Beach, Chicago, next to Castaways Bar and Grill.
Thousands descended on the location and a frenzied rush followed. Those lucky enough to find an envelope also uncovered a hand-written message, asking them to tweet a picture of themselves with their winnings to their Twitter account to share their story. Some kept the money, while others, in the spirit of the scheme’s “paying it forward” ideology, have donated it to charity.
Mr. Buzi admits the giveaways, which range between $40 and $200 (£23 to £117), are not life-changing amounts, but says some of the winners’ stories have touched him. One 14-year-old girl in California who found $200 cried tears of joy as she told her local TV station she was sending it home to her sick grandmother in Mexico to pay for medicine.
His family, whom he describes as “very private people”, has not been thrilled by the attention he has received since being “outed” as Mr. Hidden Cash. The publicity has also meant a lot of personal requests from people in need of money. “I just want to tell people I’m not a billionaire,” he says. “I’m just someone who has done well. I’m not here to solve everyone’s problems. But you get criticised whatever you do. People say, ‘Oh, you’re just a rich Donald Trump guy throwing crumbs to the poor for your own entertainment’ or ask why I’m giving money to middle-class kids with iPhones on Twitter who don’t need it. You can’t win. I just remind them of what it’s all about: we’re looking to brighten up people’s day.”