Before HBO’s savage satirist John Oliver pressed a big red button that “forgave” $15 million of medical debt that some unfortunate Americans had incurred, he took his audience on a tour of the debt industry. Here’s how it works. There’s so much debt that the people who are owed much of it can’t be bothered to collect — they figure they can’t get blood from a stone. But there is always someone who believes that stone will give blood, if only you hammer and squeeze and torment it. Those people buy that debt, meaning it’s theirs to collect. They can sometimes pay a nickel for a buck’s worth of debt. Oliver himself was offered $15 million worth of debt for $60,000. Whoever buys it is then free to try to collect it.
“Any idiot can get into it, and I can prove that to you, because I’m an idiot and I started a debt buying company and it was disturbingly easy,” Oliver said. He paid $50 to set up his company, based in Mississippi. He called it CARP — or Central Asset Recovery Professionals. (Carp is a “bottom-feeding fish” he points out.) Next time somebody calls you on the phone about that bill you can’t ever imagine paying? Ask them what they paid for it. Tell them John Oliver is advising you on this matter.