John Oliver is known for demystifying complicated issues to get his "Last Week Tonight" audience riled up. He's explained major problems with credit reports and the bizarrely undemocratic side of primaries and caucuses. In that way, last night's episode devoted to debt buyers wasn't all that different. He started out, in his entertainingly enraged way, by explaining how banks sell debt to other business for pennies on the dollar. Those companies have little knowledge of those owing money, but they can be terrifyingly predatory, taking advantage of consumers' fear of legal action. Some of these debts are erroneous; some are "zombie debts" that have already been paid. And yet, debt collectors will persist, even employing dirty tactics to get cash.
But Oliver did more than educate last night. He explained to his viewers that he undertook the surprisingly easy task of starting a debt buying company, Central Asset Recovery Professional, Inc. — "or CARP, for the bottom-feeding fish," he explained. No sooner had he set up a CARP web site, but another debt buyer was offering to sell Oliver nearly $15 million worth of medical debt for less than $60,000.
So CARP bought the debt of nearly 9,000 people — just so Oliver could forgive it. According to the host, this is the largest one-time giveaway ever on television, beating out Oprah Winfrey's famous "you get a car! You get a car!" episode, which cost that show $8 million.
"Are you ready to make television history?" Oliver asked his excited studio audience.
"Tonight, at my signal, with the power vested in me as chairman of the board of CARP, they will commence the debt-forgiving process," he explained. Then he walked over to a stage with a couple of massive spinning gold dollar signs and a big red button.
"F— you, Oprah!" Oliver shouted, then hit the button.