Hidden Cash's Fresno hunt draws thousands in quest for money (video)

Hidden Cash, the 7-week-old social media phenomenon of scavenger hunts for envelopes of money in cities around the world, sparked a frenzy of would-be treasure seekers at two locations Monday evening in Fresno.

Thousands of people descended on Woodward Park in north Fresno -- triggering a traffic jam at the park entrances -- after hints began flowing on Twitter and Facebook shortly before 5:30 p.m. Some people were sniffing around in the sprawling park on instinct, however, even before the first tweeted hints.

Nearly $1,900 was hidden in various locations in the park, tucked away in envelopes and Pez candy dispensers. Among those who found some was Cody Alves of Selma, who discovered $75 in a plain, white envelope after hearing a clue (park with green water) on the radio Monday afternoon.

"I used to run here at Woodward Park all the time and there was a lot of green water," Alves said. "I was coming off of work and I thought I might as well stop by. What's the worst that could happen? I could get some fresh air.

"And sure enough, I just found it in a bush."

The Silicon Valley entrepreneur behind Hidden Cash, Jason Buzi, squirreled away 18 envelopes containing $75 each. Three Pez dispensers had $175 rolled up inside them. And another 18 envelopes each contained a silver dollar.

In addition to cash, each cache carried a message asking the finder to tweet their photo and encouragement to "pay it forward" by doing something good with the money.

After the hubbub died down at Woodward Park, Buzi tweeted he was adding a nighttime cash hunt. The first clue to the next location was tweeted just after 10 p.m.: "Park shares its first name with the member of a band which shares its name with a music magazine."

Within minutes, money hunters were swarming Keith Tice Park in northwest Fresno (Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, of course). Buzi later tweeted that the park held eight Pez dispensers with $70 to $100 in each.

By 10:45 p.m., several hundred people packed the mostly darkened park, waving flashlights across grass, trees and playground equipment. The air filled with dust as people churned wood chips and dirt around the swings and slides. Cole and Millbrook avenues, which border the corner park, became a parking lot.

Just after 11 p.m., Buzi tweeted: "Fresno: It looks crowded there. Please keep it safe, friendly and respectful. We want to come back soon. You've been the best!!! Thank you!"

Fresno's game was afoot last week, when Buzi posted his first Twitter note declaring that the local money hunt would begin on a day with the same first letter as "a fat squirrel that lives in the mountains," or a marmot.

Buzi, described his self-funded effort as "a social experience for good." But what started out in late May as purely anonymous cash drops in and around San Francisco has gone viral as Buzi enlists trusted friends and associates to plant cash -- first in California, then across the U.S. and, more recently, in Europe. Buzi puts up all of the money for Hidden Cash.

"I never thought I'd spend as much money or time as I have on this, but when you see people get this excited, it's kind of addictive in a positive way," Buzi said Monday in an interview with The Bee. Buzi, 43, acknowledged his identity in an interview last month with CNN after his anonymous efforts were outed by the television show "Inside Edition."

"I wanted to do something to bring people together in a fun way, to use social media to create genuine interaction," Buzi said Monday. "We tell people to pay it forward, to be kind, and to have fun. ... It's purely a social experience. We're not trying to sell anything."

"Since my name came out, some people think that because I'm a business person, there has to be some kind of profit motive or commercial incentive," Buzi said. "But there are a lot of different gratifications in life, and they're not all financial."

Part of the fun, Buzi said, is when people follow the directions on the cash envelopes to tweet "selfie" photos on Twitter when they successfully follow the clues and find money. "It's great to see the number of Twitter followers going up and knowing you're having a positive impact on so many people and creating excitement," he said. "It makes it a two-way relationship, and it just makes me want to do more."

Buzi said he wasn't sure how many of the Woodward Park stashes were found by 8 p.m. "I think most were found but didn't tweet," he said. By 9 p.m., about a dozen lucky winners posted photos to Twitter describing their cash finds.

Kyle and Kandis Hernandez said they were caught in a long traffic jam trying to get into Woodward Park after the first hints were posted on Twitter. "We thought we might not get in," Kandis Hernandez said.

But their persistence paid off with a crumpled envelope with $75 inside. "As soon as we parked, we saw a Dumpster and she ran over and found it," Kyle Hernandez said. "It was not very hidden at all; it kind of shocked me," his wife added.

Greg Luna, 70, began searching for the Hidden Cash envelopes at Woodward Park before the first clue to the location was even disclosed. Luna sported a Father's Day marathon T-shirt and Vietnam Veterans cap as he searched under rocks and in bushes near the lake. He said he'd heard the cash would be at a marathon finish line -- even though that wasn't one of the clues -- and he had crossed many finish lines at Woodward Park.

Depending on how much money he found and if he found any, Luna hoped to take a vacation to Hawaii. "The ducks are telling me it's here somewhere," he said as he continued to search.

After Hidden Cash tweeted the clue, "There are three fishing ponds connected by a stream. It's near AND around them," Cheyenne Pearson, 17, searched near a stream. She said her mom and grandmother were out looking, too. Her mom worked on a hunch that the search would be at Woodward Park and checked the map to find the streams and pond. "My mom is good at finding clues," she said.

Cheyenne said she hoped to buy her brother a gift for his birthday Tuesday if she found some money.

Each new clue Monday triggered a stampede of searchers flocking to new areas of the park, splashing in a creek, rooting into ground squirrel burrows, searching under picnic tables and clambering over fences into a dusty grove. Most, however, came away empty-handed but still smiling.

The hidden cash comes from Buzi's earnings as a real estate investor. "I was broke when I started doing real estate," said Buzi, who came to the U.S. from Israel when he was 12. "I did a couple of real estate deals and made six-figure profits. ... For the billionaires here in the Silicon Valley, that's not a lot, but it's enough for me to do some things to get people out, to give back."

Buzi said that he supports charitable causes, "but since I started doing this, it's gratifying in a way that charity is not" because of the joyous photos that people post on social media after finding the cash.

Within weeks of its launch on May 23, the official Twitter account of Hidden Cash, @HiddenCash, had accumulated more than 300,000 followers. As of Monday evening, it was nearing 690,000, rising from 682,000 in the morning. "I never expected this to get as big as it has," Buzi said.

When Hidden Cash began as purely a California project, Buzi made many of the cash drops himself, and he was a key player in the Fresno event. As it's grown farther afield, he wires money to trusted accomplices who do the legwork. But, he added, "I do most of the tweets myself and most of the clues myself."

The popularity of Hidden Cash has prompted imitators to crop up in other cities, "and some are legitimate and some are not," Buzi said. "If their intention is good, power to them. There's one in Vancouver that seems to really be giving away money out of goodwill. ... But there was another that asked us to send them money so they could give away money. If you don't have the money to give away, don't ask me to send you money."

Buzi said people need to remember that Hidden Cash is about interacting with friends or family as they follow the clues and hunt for money. "It's not necessarily people who are in the most need, but for everyone to promote real interaction" he said, adding that people should not count on Hidden Cash -- or the lottery or any other chance encounter -- to find their way out of a financial bind.

"There was a tweet from a woman who said she drove from Palmdale to a Hidden Cash event in Sacramento hoping to find hidden cash to buy formula for her baby," he said. "If that's true, she spent a couple of tankfuls of gasoline for that drive, and that's not what this is all about. It was troubling."

The Hernandezes were grateful to the benefactor and said they planned to honor the request to pay the prize forward. "I have to think about what I'm going to do with it," Kandis Hernandez said. "This is a huge thing. Who can give away that much money without doing something great with it?"

Following the clues

After whetting the region's appetite last week with tweets foreshadowing the visit, the Twitter feed @HiddenCash really got things rolling Monday.

Shortly before 9 a.m.: "First FRESNO clue: When we reach 700K followers, or at 5 P.M. Whichever comes first."

About 11 a.m.: "Getting excited for FRESNO today. Question: should we make the clues to the location easy or hard?"

11:14 a.m.: "It might be Fresno. It might also be somewhere around Fresno. Just saying."

3:37 p.m., following an earlier post that Pez dispensers would be used to help conceal the money, promised that each of the dispensers will contain a $100 bill: "Forgot to mention - there's a Ben Franklin in each Pez."

About 7:30 p.m.: Final clue for FRESNO, Woodward park: Look at the base of the redwood trees. Please tweet when found. Who got the Pez? Coins = random places

About 8:30 p.m.: Done with Woodward park, but not quite done with Fresno area. Who's down for a night drop? If 500 say yes, it's on!

About 10 p.m.: Park shares its first name with the member of a band which shares its name with a music magazine.

A few minutes after that: Keith Tice Park. People weren't getting it. 8 Pez and a loose $20.

About 10:50 p.m.: All on the ground by the slides.

(The Pez dispenser way of dispensing cash wasn't novel. On Sunday in San Diego, about two dozen PEZ candy dispensers stuffed with cash instead of candy were hidden on a beach for people to find.)

Check out the Twitter feed @HiddenCash to see more of the clues dropped Monday on Fresno, as well as retweets of people who found money.