“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” host John Oliver has made television history by purchasing and forgiving nearly $15 million in medical debt owed by almost 9,000 people.
In an impassioned exposé on the debt-buying industry, Oliver demonstrated how easy it is for any shady company to buy the debt owed to a bank for the fraction of the original amount and then go after debtors in full force as a loan shark for the total amount. Oliver explained:
“Debt buying is a grimy business and it badly needs more oversight. As it stands, any idiot can get into it. And I can prove that to you, because I’m an idiot. And we started a debt-buying company. And it was disturbingly easy.”
Watch the full 20-minute segment below:
The show created it’s own debt-buying company called Central Asset Recovery Professionals, Inc., or CARP, named after the bottom-feeding fish. With a basic website and a $50 application fee, the company bought a $15 million medical debt portfolio (in the form of an Excel spreadsheet) owed by nearly 9,000 people for just $60,000.
As it stands, any company that owns the portfolio is within its rights to go after every debtor on the list in an attempt to collect all $15 million. Debt collectors may employ intimidating tactics, legal or not, to harass debtors into paying up through threatening phone calls and exploiting their personal lives, but none is more popular than filing lawsuits against debtors who rarely show up to court, giving debt collectors an automatic win.
According to Oliver, American households owe a total of $12 trillion in debt where roughly $436 billion of it is 90 days or more past due.
Instead of choosing to capitalize on the debt portfolio, Oliver chose to immediately forgive the debt “because on one hand it’s obviously the right thing to do but more importantly we’d be staging the largest one-time giveaway in television history.”
The standing record for on-television giveaway was held by Oprah Winfrey in 2004 when she gave all 276 audience members a $28,500 Pontiac sedan, or nearly $8 million in total.
The nearly $15 million in purchased medical debt was sent to a non-profit organization that specializes in forgiving medical debt with no tax consequences to the debtor. Oliver went on to explain:
“We need much clearer rules and tougher oversight to protect consumers from potentially predatory companies like the one we set up. But the least we can do with this debt, that I can’t fucking believe we are allowed to own, is give it away.”
In a dramatic scene involving a stage with a big red button in the center, Oliver says just before pushing it:
“You are about to watch me give away $15 million. Fuck you, Oprah!”
The segment ended with John Oliver yelling:
“It is done! It is done! I am the new queen of daytime talk!”