After making a mint in the real-estate business, Jason Buzi decided it was time to share the wealth by creating @HiddenCash, the Twitter handle that announces the cash giveaways that have recently drawn thousands of treasure hunters from California to Spain.
"It's been tremendously rewarding in a way you can't measure financially," says Mr. Buzi, who estimates he's given away roughly $60,000 so far in allotments of about $2,000 at a time. He hides some of the cash himself—tweeting hints about the location of the dough a few hours later.
But like many a summer fad, this one may also be short-lived.
Some @HiddenCash hunters have gone to extreme lengths to uncover the concealed bills, rooting through bins full of garbage, scrambling atop bus shelters, using rakes and shovels to dig through dirt and sand.
The unintended result: a few of the events have turned into stampedes, with zealous fortune-seekers sometimes leaving behind trails of trash and big bills for property damage.
In other instances, plans have gone awry; and in one case Mr. Buzi found that his generosity was not only frowned upon, but considered unlawful.
This past Sunday, in New York City, the treasure hunt hit a snag in Coney Island when 32 hidden Pez dispensers containing money went missing after city workers combed the area with rakes and sifters. Frustrated by two hours of fruitless digging, some @HiddenCash followers tweeted complaints about coming up empty handed. So @HiddenCash co-founder Yan Budman, who helps to organize the events, bought a new set of dispensers and hid them at nearby Brighton Beach.
Then, in a new twist, Mr. Buzi tried to anonymously buy groceries for some lucky Bronx shoppers. But Mr. Budman had to call more than a dozen stores before he found one willing to participate.
"It's hard giving money away," says Mr. Buzi.
For their part, Mr. Buzi's Twitter followers seem thrilled with the events, even if most walk away from them with empty pockets. No one has been reported injured in the scrums for his money, and many of those lucky enough to find it have helped fuel the craze, posting smiling pictures of themselves with bills in their fists.
The phenomenon has sparked numerous copycat events in places such as Dallas, San Diego and Washington, D.C., but these functions are usually less spontaneous and more orderly, like an Easter egg hunt. Says Stacey Monroe, who organized cash hunts in Dallas and Fort Worth: "The really good thing about it was the parents were out there with their children, hand in hand."
@HiddenCash itself had a difficult birth in late May. The first "drop," as Mr. Buzi calls it, consisted of envelopes of cash taped to parking meters and fire hydrants in his hometown of San Francisco.
He tweeted out hints about the free money. But because no one was following @HiddenCash yet, the cash went unclaimed for some time. It wasn't until a local blogger wrote about Mr. Buzi that participation began picking up. Within weeks, @HiddenCash had gone viral and hundreds of people were turning up at parks, beaches and other locales across California.
Since then, there have been a few other hiccups.
At a park in Whittier, Calif. a few weeks ago, about 1,000 people crushed plants, broke fences and even dug up sprinkler heads one evening in search of the money—usually 20- and 100-dollar bills concealed in containers like Pez dispensers or Angry Bird orbs. Traffic was snarled for blocks, says City Manager Jeff Collier, who couldn't get within a mile of the park.
"We had to call a number of police officers and bring them in from off duty so we could maintain control," Mr. Collier recalls. He estimates the city spent $1,700 in police overtime costs.
A chastened Mr. Buzi voluntarily wrote a $5,000 check to cover the damage. In a tweet to followers, he said he learned that "doing a drop at a small park in Whittier after dark was probably not the smartest idea."
But some daytime hunts have also been problematic. In May, Mr. Buzi hid his cash outside a shopping center in Burbank, Calif., near where a major construction project was going on. City spokesman Drew Sugars says the ensuing congestion brought on by the arrival of treasure hunters backed up traffic and required cops to leave their beats to cover the chaos.
"There's a reason that cities and municipalities have things permitted," Mr. Sugars says. "If someone was going to cause hundreds of people to descend on one section of our city, we'd always want to be informed of that."
Mr. Buzi says Burbank was a "turning point" and that he never expected his @HiddenCash following would grow so large so quickly.
At least one city stopped a cash hunt before it began. Officials in Paris pre-empted Mr. Buzi's plans by warning it was against French law to give away money in public.
Responding to an inquiry from Mr. Buzi, French authorities said in an email that he could face up to six months in prison and a fine of €30,000, or more than $40,000, if he went through with the event.
"There was a free distribution of money in public space organized in Paris in November 2009 that caused a lot of disruption and was cancelled the same day," wrote Laurent Nunez, prefect of police. "For all these reasons, we are sorry we have to respond that your request cannot be held in Paris."
Mr. Buzi points out that the vast majority of his events have been peaceful, and that he always encourages his online followers to "pay it forward" by doing something positive with the money.
As for his summertime spectacles, Mr. Buzi says he'd like to keep them going. But given the total outlays thus far, and the effort he and Mr. Budman have expended, the treasure hunts may go on hiatus for a while.
Some purists, who worry about the events being perceived as charity, may be relieved. "Good philanthropy is not a fun game," says Susan Winer, the co-founder of Strategic Philanthropy, a consulting firm based in Chicago. "Otherwise it is just 'found' money and often too foolishly spent."
Mr. Buzi has done his share of traditional charitable giving, he says, to food banks and other volunteer organizations. This endeavor, he says, is more of a fun event designed to get people outside and interacting with each other—ideally without pandemonium.
"It's been really rewarding hearing all the stories from all the people and how much they love following and participating," says Mr. Buzi.
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