John Oliver buys and forgives $15M in medical debt, illustrates horrors of America's debt-collectors

John Oliver now holds the American record for largest single giveaway in history, doubling Oprah's "you get a car!" record — but Oliver did it by forming a debt-collection agency and buying up the debt of Americans who'd defaulted on the sky-high expenses from life-threatening illnesses, then forgiving the debts.

The sums themselves are "zombie debts" — debts that have been long written off and generally don't have to be paid, which are bought up by collection firms that terrorize their victims and embroil them in difficult-to-navigate litigation that they must execute perfectly, or the debts are resurrected and collected through paycheck confiscation.

Oliver's segment reveals that while some state houses have made it easier for medical debts to be written off, others have passed laws giving more power to the debt-collection industry, while taking away penalties for abuse and creating the assumption that debt-collectors are in the right (and removing the assumption of innocence for people in debt). He also goes to a debt-collectors' conference and captures candid footage of industry professionals joking about bullying their victims and ruining their lives.

Oliver's fake-real debt collection firm, Central Asset Recovery Professionals (CARP, named for the bottom-feeders), cost $50 to incorporate. He was able to buy $15M in debt for less than $60K.

Sometimes the debt buyers are buying nothing more than a name and a dollar figure, with little to no proof that the amount is correct or other evidence that the debt is still owed. However, because debt buyers pay so little for these lists of debtors, they only need to convince a small number of people to pay up in order to make their money back.

In more than half the states, you can legally buy debt without a license. In 17 states, you don't even need a license to collect debts.

"There are places in this country where you need to fill out less paperwork to start collecting money from peoples' pockets than you do to collect fish from a f*cking lake," explains Oliver.

He continued: "It is pretty clear by now that debt-buying is a grimy business and 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."

John Oliver Buys $15M In Medical Debt, Then Forgives It
[Chris Morran/Consumerist]