John Oliver was feeling generous on Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight — but first he wanted to paint a clear picture of the debt industry.
“American households collectively owe over 12 trillion dollars in debt, and right now $436 billion of that debt is seriously delinquent, meaning it’s 90 or more days past due,” he said, kicking off an explosive segment. “And it is not good if anything is that late. If your baby were three months overdue, you’d effectively just be giving birth to a floppy toddler.”
Then Oliver got serious, pointing out how some people can’t help but get in debt. “Take Bob Weinkauf,” Oliver said. “A few years ago, he was intensive care for breathing trouble, and after four days of treatment, the hospital told his wife that their insurance was not going to cover the cost.” His wife, Becky Weinkauf, soon learned they were $80,000 in debt.
Buying this debt is big business, especially for Encore Capital, a company claiming one in five consumers either owes them money now or has before. “Statistically that means one member of Evanescence has owed them money,” Oliver joked before explaining what it means when similar companies get involved. “Let’s say you have a thousand dollar credit card debt that you can’t pay,” he said. “At a certain point, your bank might write off the $4,000 on its taxes and then, to make just a little extra money, sell it off to a debt buyer for a tiny fraction of the cost. Maybe $50. And then that debt buyer can come after you for the full original amount. And if it can’t collect, potentially it can then resell that debt for a fraction of what it paid to someone else who can still come after you for the original amount, or sell it for a fraction of what it paid and so on and so on and so on. Now, you might think the information changing hands would include a lot of verifiable information, but you would be wrong.”
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The ongoing process has been known to create problems: The wrong person could be accused of owing money or someone could face the wrath of zombie debt, which a news anchor defined as “debt that you thought was dead but starts to take on a whole new life much like a zombie.” At one point, Oliver showed how a collector threatened to have a person’s dog arrested, while another told someone to “just go jump in front of a train.”
Frustrated, the host decided to stick it to the industry by purchasing $14,922,261.76 of medical debt owed by 9,000 people — the biggest collective prize given out by any TV show in history. And yes, he played a clip of Oprah Winfrey giving away cars. “F— you, Oprah,” yelled Oliver. Watch it all go down in the video below.