America, Zombie Debt, And How John Oliver ‘Gave Away’ $15M To Expose The Debt Industry And Out-Giveaway Oprah

What would you do if you had millions of dollars in expendable income and a message? If you were John Oliver, you would use your television show as a platform to practically give it away in order to expose the debt industry and what is called “zombie debt.” At the same time, you would just happen to out-giveaway Oprah and forgive the debts of over 9,000 people in the amount of almost $15 million.

His Own Stage

John Oliver might be considered “just” a talk show host, or “only” a late night television host, but his delivery on Last Week Tonight is more than simply late night fodder or tv show comedian. He makes some good points, and touches on some serious news issues that need to be discussed. The fact that he does it in a way that gets lots of laughs does not lessen the impact of his message.

Last night, he hit on the amount of debt Americans hold ($12 trillion—that’s a lot of zeroes) and something called “zombie debt.” Oliver explained that, “Just like on The Walking Dead, zombie debt comes back from the grave, is incredibly hard to deal with, and seems to disproportionately impact minorities.”


What this means is, debt has a statute of limitations. Once it gets past a certain time frame, the debt is no longer required to be paid back (in certain circumstances; you can’t go rack up debt and assume if you hide from it long enough, it will go away). And sometimes there are extreme circumstances where medical debt might grow quickly and unexpectedly.

However, in these circumstances of seriously delinquent debt, the place that is owed money can sell it to debt-buying companies for pennies on the dollar. These companies’ sole purpose is to try to collect these debts again—even though they have been discarded by bankruptcy, legally timed out, or even already paid.

The companies can attempt to collect the debts themselves, or send them to debt collectors. Everybody heave a collective groan now. While most debt collectors perform their job duties within the legal confines of their job description, we all know there are some who show blatant disregard for not only the law, but common decency, by threatening people, their families, neighbors, coworkers, pets, even their lives. John Oliver shared some of those last night (most of the language is bleeped, but there’s a language alert for sensitive ears).

Industry Problem

In addition to being able to buy out-of-statute medical debts with very little original transaction information included, the personal information that is sold—and thus received by the debt-buying company—includes names, addresses and Social Security numbers. No kind of security worries there, are there?

These companies are also “clogging up courts across the country with lawsuits,” Time reports, but since many of them go unanswered, even if there was very little legitimacy to the collection effort to begin with, once they go through court, if the defendant doesn’t respond, it is automatically pushed forward into a legally collectible debt. So, the sleazy debt-buying company going after a legally out-of-statute debt ends up making money anyway.

With the help of a hidden camera, John Oliver’s crew found out just how these debt-buying places work and what their philosophy is. They try to justify what they are doing as if they are “helping” the economy and debtors, when what they are actually doing is illegal. And it is scarily easy to become one of them, as there is a serious lack of oversight across the industry as a whole.

To add the dot to the exclamation point, John Oliver went a step further than just reporting on the zombie debt industry and telling how easy it was for “any idiot” to get into it, by creating his own debt-buying company. “It was disturbingly easy,” Oliver said. Central Asset Recovery Professionals, Inc.—or CARP (“after the bottom-feeding fish”)—came to life after a $50 incorporation fee and a website set-up.

Oliver “bought $14,922,261.76 of out-of-statute medical debt from over 9,000 people” and then, with equal game show enthusiasm and Oprah-like flair, he gave it away! John Oliver managed to out-giveaway Oprah and her cars (“Everybody gets a car!”) and forgive the debts and rescue the private, personal information of over 9,000 people. Way to go, John Oliver.

[Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images]