Over his years in the Bay Area, real estate investor Jason Buzi has left a legacy of offbeat entrepreneurship and eccentric philanthropy.
He created a smartphone case that can light your cigarette. He angered Palo Alto residents with his house-flipping practices. And he created mayhem in Manhattan a few years ago when he tried showering strangers with cold hard cash.
This week, in a story that gets more bizarre by the day, Buzi emerged in another curious role: He's reportedly behind a sensational scheme to hide money around California cities, then tweet out hints for his treasure-hunting followers, now numbering nearly 500,000.
A few weeks back, word started spreading about a tweeter by the name of @HiddenCash who was secreting stacks of bills around San Francisco, San Jose and other cities, then tweet-teasing his followers with hints like this one for the Los Angeles neighborhood of Hollenbeck: "4 by palms, 2 by ivy, 2 in bushes, 1 by (not in!) trash. 9 total. Thank u LA! We'll be back!"
After the mysterious donor had given away untold thousands of dollars, while encouraging treasure-finders to "pay it forward" and use the money to do something nice for someone else, the @HiddenCash wall of secrecy took a huge hit from "Inside Edition" host Jim Moret.
It was classic reality TV: Moret gets on the phone with a guy claiming to be the do-gooder behind @HiddenCash. He asks him if he's Jason Buzi. The mystery man says no. Moret tells the audience: "Listening closely to his voice and comparing it to the voice of Jason Buzi, which we found on a real estate podcast, they sure do sound the same."
And the horse was out of the gate.
"I got hold of Buzi and asked him if he was the guy behind @HiddenCash and he said he was and that he regretted talking to 'Inside Edition,'" said Jennifer Maerz, managing producer for San Francisco-based online publisher The Bold Italic.
"He said he has five people working with him on this and that the others want to remain anonymous. These are all really rich people, he told me. I asked him if he has a budget or an end date for this money giveaway, and he said no, that as long as people were having fun with it he'll keep it going."
Buzi did not respond to several emails and calls Friday. And as word spread that Buzi was apparently the cash-heavy mastermind, so did tales of his past activities around Silicon Valley. For starters, Maerz said, "he told me he's made millions in real estate in recent years." That wouldn't surprise folks in Palo Alto and Los Altos who've watched Buzi flip homes in ways that rub many of them the wrong way.
"I've received many of his fliers on my doorstep in Los Altos and he basically makes it look like he's part of this nice lovely family and they want to move into our neighborhood and he could make it really easy for us to sell our house to him, off-market and with no real estate transaction fees," said David Blockus, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker.
"Basically, he's trying to get properties without exposing the transaction to the market," Blockus said. "He's buying them off-market at a discount, then either flipping them or whatever. And while it's not illegal, as far as I know, it's my personal belief that he may be targeting people who don't know what the market is and don't understand their home's true value."
In a posting on a website for his cigarette-lighting smartphone case, Lightercase, Buzi is described as having "been an entrepreneur for his entire life. As a real estate investor and developer, he has participated in renovating and constructing new homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. Other pursuits have included wholesaling diamonds in his early 20s and trading currencies. Jason also loves teaching and spent a year teaching English in Taiwan."
The posting talks about Buzi's volunteer work building libraries in Ghana and schools in Bulgaria.
That same volunteer spirit is reflected in Buzi's LinkedIn profile, which says, "In addition to real estate investing, Jason Buzi tries to be involved in the community and give back to those less fortunate. He has volunteered in East Palo Alto as a mentor and is an active donor to the East Palo Alto Kids Foundation. He is currently working with refugee families through the International Rescue Committee."
As details continue to emerge about the man who says he's behind @HiddenCash, one thing seems certain: The latest campaign will continue. On Friday afternoon, @HiddenCash tweeted: "Stay tuned for details of our San Francisco event this weekend!"
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689; follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.