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John Oliver gets into the debt-buying business, makes TV history

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Last night, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver devoted about two-thirds of the show to debt buyers, who are in the unenviable position of making regular old debt collectors look good. Oliver’s team delved into the objectionable practices of the employees tasked with threatening—er, urging—debtors to pay what they owe, including harassing their employers and suggesting turning their pets into meals. Last Week Tonight even sneaked hidden cameras into a debt buyers convention that had contempt for consumers on its agenda.

Of course, this information won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s caught a “zombie debt” report on a local news broadcast, or who’s part of the roughly 20% of Americans who have had their (often) out-of-statute debt purchased for just fractions of a cent on the dollar. What is purportedly groundbreaking is the fact that the show set up its own debt-buying business to purchase out-of-statute medical debt just to forgive it.

In a stunt similar to the founding of Our Lady Of Perpetual Exemption, Last Week Tonight formed Central Asset Recovery Professionals Inc., or CARP, which was promptly offered a nearly $16 million portfolio of medical debt in Texas for less than $60,000. Oliver and his staff snapped it up in an effort to show up Oprah Winfrey, among other things. Winfrey’s infamous car giveaway in 2004 was estimated to be worth $8 million, and held the record for biggest TV giveaway until Last Week Tonight forgave about $16 million of debt on air last night.


It remains to be seen what the IRS implications will be for these pardoned debtors, as Oprah’s car recipients ended up on the hook for about $6,000 in taxes each. But Oliver wrapped the show with a little celebration, while also spurring on an overhaul of the debt-buying business, as his CARP move only helped about 9,000 people.