On Sunday night John Oliver staged what he described as “the largest one-time giveaway in television show history,” giving $14,922,261.76 to nearly 9,000 lucky Texans. Or maybe not-so-lucky Texans, at least until Sunday: The money came in the form of forgiveness for out-of-statute medical debts, debts so old they could no longer be recovered in court. It was part of a lengthy investigation into the shady ethics and questionable practices of debt buyers, companies that buy up debts for pennies on the dollar and go to great, sometimes illegal lengths to collect them.
It’s not news that debt collectors of all sorts often break the law, and the threats Oliver presents are pretty typical—except maybe for the collector who threatens to have a debtor’s dog arrested and eaten. It’s the larger cases that are more impressive, like Williams Scott & Associates, which, according to Oliver (and the charges in an ongoing criminal prosecution) posed as a government agency and gave their employees very believable aliases like “Sr. Investorgator [sic] Ace Rogers.”
The broader case Oliver is making is that the entire debt buying industry is corrupt and underregulated, not just the most laughably incompetent collectors. It’s difficult to argue after seeing his footage of the Debt Buyers Association’s annual conference, in which trade group members scoff at the idea of their debtor’s legal rights. But the strongest argument Oliver makes that the industry needs work is that they let him become a part of it. Without too much hassle, he was able to set up his own debt collection company and purchased a portfolio of nearly $15 million in Texas medical debts. (Total cost: less than $60,000.) Then, with the press of a giant red button, he forgave all $15 million. As best as the staff of Last Week Tonight could figure, this gives Oliver the record for largest giveaway (previously held by Oprah Winfrey for giving her audience cars). Given the misery debt buyers and collection agencies cause, it’s hard to imagine any late-night host doing more concrete good for such a small cash outlay—but here’s hoping they make a competition of it.