John Oliver's $15 Million Debt Giveaway

On Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, the comedian and host forgave the medical bills of some 9,000 people.

Comedian John Oliver (Eric Liebowitz / HBO)

John Oliver, the comedian and host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, dove into an investigation Sunday on how easy it is for predatory companies to purchase peoples’ debt from a bank and hold it over their heads. To demonstrate how easy it was, Oliver bought $15 million of medical debt for pennies on the dollar, and then announced he’d forgive it all.

Oliver called it the “largest one-time giveaway in television history,” trumping Oprah Winfrey’s car giveaway in 2004.

Oliver bought the debt by starting a company online for $50, which he then registered in Mississippi. He called his company Central Asset Recovery Professional, Inc, or CARP, “for the bottom-feeding fish.” Once he set up the company, he said he received an offer to buy $15 million of unpaid medical debt for less than $60,000.

In some instances, a company will purchase debt like this, Oliver explained, then harass the debtors to earn a profit off the collections. In Oliver’s case, the $15 million of debt belonged to 9,000 people, and by the end of his show he stood by a big red button, which once pressed, he said would move the debtors’ information to a nonprofit that forgives medical debt.

“Tonight, at my signal, with the power vested in me as chairman of the board of CARP, they will commence the debt-forgiving process,” Oliver said.

In 2004, Winfrey gave away a car to every member of her audience––“You get a car!” she yelled “You get a car!”––which was all together valued at $8 million. By buying and forgiving this debt, Oliver said the title of most generous host now belonged to him.