On Sunday (June 5), John Oliver railed against the “predatory” US debt-buying industry during HBO’s Last Week Tonight, and in the process, beat out the queen of talk TV herself—Oprah Winfrey—with what Oliver called one of the largest TV giveaways ever.
The talk-show host forgave $15 million in debt during the episode, which topped Winfrey’s famous 2004 car giveaway that was valued at $7.7 million.
Neither show actually spent millions on the giveaways, it’s worth noting. Winfrey’s cars were donated by General Motors’ Pontiac, and HBO forgave all that debt at the bargain price of $60,000.
Oliver’s giveaway was part of a segment that ripped apart US debt-acquisition firms that buy consumer debt for pennies on the dollar, without any real documentation, and then harass debtors for repayment. The practice exposes the personal and financial information of thousands. And it can dredge up old debt, known as “zombie debt,” that may already be paid, written off, or discharged through bankruptcy. The collectors aggressively go after it, sometimes leaving threatening messages or targeting the debtor’s employer.
“Debt-buying is a grimy business and badly needs more oversight,” Oliver surmised, because “any idiot can get into it.”
To prove his point, Oliver started his own debt-acquisition company named Central Asset Recovery Professionals, or CARP (“after the bottom-feeding fish”). The process was “disturbingly easy,” Oliver said. It cost $50 to incorporate the company. And, for less than $60,000, CARP was able to buy a portfolio of out-of-statute medical debt from Texas, worth nearly $15 million.
The acquisition gave CARP access to the names, current addresses, and social security numbers of nearly 9,000 people, whom the company could then demand repayment from, even though the statue of limitations on the debt had expired.
Rather than continue efforts to collect the debt from those people, Oliver decided to do something radical—forgive it. The debtors’ information was sent directly to a non-profit that specializes in forgiving medical debt. With a joking “f— you, Oprah,” Oliver announced the debt-forgiving process was underway.
Oliver is still a long way from matching Winfrey’s overall generosity though. From 2002 to 2010, Jezebel estimates the former daytime TV host gave away nearly $23 million worth of products in her “Favorite Things” segments.