From Jon Stewart’s final time behind the desk on The Daily Show to Jimmy Kimmel’s Back to the Future reunion with Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, late night television has gifted viewers with some truly memorable gems in the past year. Many of these were courtesy John Oliver’s fantastic one-night-a-week Last Week Tonight on HBO, where the former Daily Show correspondent turned show host has employed equal parts intelligence, wit and passion for subjects as varied as the Paris attacks and Donald Trump. So what’s the British comedian’s next target? Television icon Oprah Winfrey by way of the shady business of medical debt selling, buying and collection.
Oliver and the Last Week Tonight writing team decided to tackle debt buying-companies on their most recent episode. If you haven’t heard of the business of debt buying, or any of the companies highlighted by the 20-minute segment, you’re not alone:
“Debt buying companies like [Encore Capital Group, SquareTwo Financial, PRA Group and Asta Funding, Inc.] that you’ve probably never heard of have amassed a huge amount of Americans’ debt. In fact the largest, Encore Capital Group… tell investors that one in five consumers either owes them money now, or has owed them money in the past. Which is incredible.”
What follows is a detailed, point-by-point deconstruction of an industry that — despite numerous, repeated lawsuits and on-the-books federal regulations — tends to operate in a shadowy manner. By way of explanation, Oliver offers a rather simple example of what the process companies selling, buying and reselling an individual’s debt might look like:
“Let’s say you have a $1,000 credit card debt that you can’t pay. At a certain point, your bank might write off the [debt] on its taxes, and then to make just a little extra money, sell it off to a debt buyer for a tiny fraction of the cost. Maybe $50, and that debt buyer can then come after you for the full original amount. And if it can’t collect, potentially it can then resell that debt for a fraction of what it paid to someone else who can still come after you for the original amount. Or sell it for a fraction of what it paid, and so on and so on and so on.”
The rest of Oliver’s deep dive is quite frightening. For despite federal and state regulations limited or barring debt collectors from pursuing certain means to obtain their purchased debt from consumers, many companies (and the individuals who work for them) regularly weasel around the law per thousands of lawsuits, threatening phone calls and home visits. Some, as demonstrated by a clip shown by Oliver, will even ignore the law outright by calling the home of a person’s employer to demand payment.
So what does any of this have to do with Oprah? Instead of merely reporting what he and the Last Week Tonight team had dug up on debt buying, Oliver and company decided to create their own debt collection business (a) to prove how “disturbingly easy” it was, and (b) to outdo Winfrey by “staging the largest one-time giveaway in television show history.” How? By purchasing a medical debt portfolio worth nearly $15 million for a fraction of the cost (roughly $60,000) and — instead of doing what everyone else in the business does and trying to collect — forgiving it. All of it.
Oliver’s very real company (Central Asset Recovery Professionals, Inc.) bought the portfolio, which almost doubled Winfrey’s famous car giveaway worth $8 million, and sent it directly to the nonprofit group RIP Medical Debt. With a bit of added pomp and circumstance — including, but not limited to, a couple of large golden dollar signs, a giant red button made out of what appears to be an inflatable ball, and confetti — Oliver forgave the debt and sent the Last Week Tonight studio audience into a frenzy.
That’s great, but will it ever become a meme?