It's been a crazy two weeks for Jason Buzi. The formerly anonymous man behind the @HiddenCash experiment, which had him and some buddies dropping big bills between here and Los Angeles for strangers to find using Twitter clues, got interview requests from media outlets around the world before being outed by Inside Edition of all places, which apparently called in a voice analysis expert to unmask this mystery man. Since then, a three-year-old story from Palo Alto Online about the controversial ways he may have made that money have also surfaced, as well as previous money drop experiments Inside Edition claims he made in San Francisco and New York.
It's getting ridiculous, the level of fervor being generated around one real estate magnate's ploy to tuck $20 and $100 drops around California. But many people are into it – in Los Angeles he claims to have drawn between 500 and 2,000 people to various locations from beaches to malls to look for cash. So we wanted to check back in with @HiddenCash on the phone and hear more about what's gone down in the time since we broke this story two weeks ago. And first off he told me was that, yes, his name is Jason Buzi. "I shouldn't have agreed to do that interview," he says of Inside Edition. "But they were persistent, and they had a voice expert."
But now that it's out there, his name is probably the least interesting part of his story.
Buzi says the last two weeks have been "unreal" for him: calls from CNN and outlets in Japan, copycat @HiddenCash types (one of which is apparently trying to raise money in order to give that money away), and offers from "seven or eight" television producers who want to turn his concept into television shows. He insists that he wanted to stay anonymous to allow him to continue pulling the strings behind the scenes without the media glare. "Part of the fun was the mystique," he says, "and I have family members who didn't want the publicity. Plus the anonymity makes it easier to do the drops."
Now that the world knows Buzi's name, he says he's turned his role into spokesman for a group of donors as he works collectively with five other very rich people who are working with him on @HiddenCash.
So when is this campaign going to end? Buzi, a Bay Area native, says there's no end in sight – in fact, it's just the opposite, with big drops planned for San Francisco this weekend. There's also a new travel scholarship in the works. "People would submit places they've always wanted to visit," he says.
As for the criticisms people have been leveling at the campaign, and the fact that Buzi made his money from real estate at a time when many people are struggling just to pay rent here, he says, "I totally understand that [wealth] is an issue," he says, "I'm totally mindful of that. I wasn't born wealthy. So many people I know have done better than me, and they're not doing anything to give back. So it's strange for someone who gives back to be criticized for how they give money. I really am just trying to give back."
He sees this form of giving back as being about forming relationships between strangers – around free money, of course. He talks about the alienation people feel from being online all day, and firmly believes @HiddenCash brings "whole families together" and bridges the online and offline world. He then names off some of his favorite stories about people who have played his game, including a 14-year-old who cried after discovering $200 and said she'd give the money to her grandma – a story the Hollywood producers must be eating up. Of course, some people want more than randomly placed bills. Buzi says he's gotten emails from people who think he should buy them homes and cars, or help with their mortgages, none of which, he explains, is part of his plan.
Buzi says @HiddenCash will be around as long as people have fun with it – if it hadn't taken off so quickly, he says, it would've been a quiet SF thing. But as the public and media attention grows, his interest in this experiment grows too. "Why did it hit such a nerve?" he asks. "The lottery pays hundreds of millions." He answers his own question by adding, "We're doing this without any commercial message. The idea is just to pay it forward."
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Photo of Jason Buzi from LighterCase.