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Television

John Oliver makes TV history by forgiving $15 million in medical debt

John Oliver
John Oliver investigates the debt-buying industry on “Last Week Tonight.”
(Eric Liebowitz / HBO)

Move over, Oprah, John Oliver just stole your thunder.

On Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight,” the comedian staged what may be the largest giveaway in TV history by forgiving some $15 million in medical debt. 

The stunt capped an in-depth segment about the abuses of the debt-buying industry. As Oliver explained, Americans collectively owe $12 trillion in debt, and $436 billion of that is seriously delinquent – i.e., 90 days or more past due.

This has led to an explosion of debt-buying companies, which buy and often resell debt for pennies on the dollar. Many of these companies are predatory, using deceptive and in some cases illegal tactics to collect money owed. (Think: threatening voicemails.)

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“It is pretty clear by now debt-buying is a grimy business and badly needs more oversight,” Oliver said, noting that “any idiot” can get into the industry. 

Exhibit A: In a process he found “disturbingly easy,” Oliver started his own debt-buying company. As he explained, “Last Week Tonight” spent a whopping $50 to incorporate a debt-acquisition company online in Mississippi  – “incidentally, over the Internet is the best way to experience Mississippi,” he joked.

The company was named Central Asset Recovery Professionals, or “CARP,” “after the bottom-feeding fish” and Oliver named the chairman of the board.

Before long, CARP was offered a portfolio of just under $15 million of out-of-statute medical debt – i.e. debt that people are no longer legally required to pay. In exchange for a fee, CARP would receive personal information on nearly 9,000 people.

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So Oliver bought the portfolio for a price of $60,000 which, Oliver said, “is absolutely terrifying.” But rather than hiring a team of employees to start making harassing phone calls, Oliver decided to forgive the debt by transferring it to a nonprofit. 

“On the one hand, it’s obviously the right thing to do,” he said. “But much more importantly, we’d be staging the largest one-time giveaway in television show history.” 

The stunt surpasses Oprah Winfrey’s famous “You get a car!” moment from 2004, when the daytime host gave away 276 cars, valued at a total of $8 million, to audience members. 

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