Lezlie Sterling / lsterling@sacbee.com

State workers Natasha Price, left, and Roger Vartabedian search under a tree in Capitol Park during the Hidden Cash treasure hunt on Tuesday.

William Endicott: Are there hidden motives behind Hidden Cash treasure hunts?

Published: Thursday, Jun. 26, 2014 - 12:00 am

There is something unseemly and oddly perverse in rich guys entertaining themselves by stashing envelopes of cash in hidden locations and then watching people surrender their dignity by scrounging in garbage cans, climbing trees and digging through mulch in search of free money.

But the “Hidden Cash” phenomenon seems to be sweeping the country and came Tuesday to Sacramento, where the orchestrator was revealed to be a Sacramento State graduate, real estate investor and entrepreneur Jason Buzi, currently of Palo Alto.

Naturally, as in so much these days, it all traces back to social media and the ability to get the word out to thousands of people in a compact period of time, in this case through Twitter accounts that gave clues to the location of envelopes filled with cash.

After that, greed takes over, and the result usually is to create a frenzy of searching, as has happened in cities from San Francisco to New Rochelle, N.Y., to London. It seems to me it is only a matter of time until fights start breaking out, people get hurt, and property gets destroyed.

In Burbank, for instance, the recent hunt there was described as a traffic nightmare, and news reports said people were trampling over one another.

“Money brings out the best in people and it can bring out the worst,” Kayla Lawson, who manages the Twitter account for the giveaway in Kansas, told a local television station. “It’s testing people to see how they are going to act in these situations.”

She also said fake accounts are being created, and people are being asked for donations and gift cards that presumably would then be hidden. But the fakers are merely pocketing their take.

For the most part, the benefactors manage to remain anonymous, but Buzi’s identify was revealed by the television show “Inside Edition,” and he was later identified by Sacramento State as a 1995 graduate.

He says he has since recruited several other like-minded donors in California. He says that the “hidden cash,” usually in amounts from $50 to $100, is all in good fun, much like an old-fashioned treasure hunt, and that the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We’ve had more excitement about Sacramento than we have had in bigger cities like Chicago or London,” he told The Sacramento Bee. He also said he hoped the hunters keep their search safe and fun and “pay it forward.”

Buzi, 43, said the whole idea was born at a dinner in San Francisco a month ago. He had just made a killing on a real estate deal and said he wanted to share some of his good fortune. His motivation: “We have a lot of bad stuff happening in the world, just being able to put a smile on people’s faces and give them something positive.”

In response to critics, he told the Huffington Post that “there will always be skeptics and cynics. There are people who don’t believe anything can be motivated by altruism … I made a bunch of money. I want to give it back in a fun way.”

I don’t know, but my guess is that most of the lucky ones who find an envelope full of cash pay it forward at Starbucks or the nearest shopping center. But maybe not everybody.

In New Rochelle, a reporter for the local newspaper, out covering the story, reread the clues and found an envelope containing $50 stuck in the rocks at a waterfront park. “Make someone else’s day,” was the message written on the envelope. “Pay it forward.” The reporter, Ned Rauch, said the money will be donated to the Friends of the New Rochelle Public Library.

This, of course, raises an interesting question. If all these millionaires or multimillionaires, most all of whom still remain anonymous, are so interested in spreading money around and paying it forward, why don’t they pool their substantial resources and set up scholarships for needy students, donate to libraries and schools and contribute to wounded veterans organizations or some other worthy cause?

It could be that some do engage in other, more meaningful philanthropic giving, and the “hidden cash” is just a diversion, or some sort of sociological study to see how people react when the idea of something-for-nothing is floated on social media. Or it could be that they just think it’s funny to watch people dash for cash.

William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor of The Sacramento Bee.

Read more articles by William Endicott

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