Why I Can’t Get Behind John Oliver’s Latest Debt Collection Piece

We started TrueAccord in 2013 because we wanted to crowd out the “bad guys” in the debt collection space. Every dollar that will be paid through our system, we figured, is a dollar not paid through them. We will get involved in the messy world of debt collection, get our hands dirty, actually deal with those in debt instead of providing technology and hoping for the best. And we will emerge the winners.

Three years later, we still believe that. Those in debt who choose to work with us get flexible payment plans, where every dollar pays for their debt – principal first. Their interest is frozen. We don’t charge fees. More and more banks, issuers and large companies work with us, and they care so much about their customers’ experience that they push us to be even more lenient than we ever thought we could be.

Looks like we did it; we’re the good guys. And when John Oliver bashes debt collectors and debt buyers on his show, I should be thrilled. I should be one of those who stand on the sidelines and point and laugh and cheer at the tremendous feat of forgiving almost $15 million of old debt. But I don’t. I’m actually quite pissed.

Why is that? What’s in this piece that gets on my nerves?

Don’t get me wrong, I like the show. Who doesn’t like getting the news shouted at them with a British accent? I also get that he’s not a journalist, he’s an entertainer, and the video was indeed entertaining. It had another problem, though: it absolutely, completely, utterly managed to miss the point.

If you’re chasing clicks and eyeballs, debt collection is a great story. Being in debt is scary, it’s confusing, and being repeatedly asked to pay back adds another layer of stress. People in debt often have really sad life stories, and are in constant crisis mode, not always of their own making. The thing is, John Oliver did nothing more than to put them on display, and offer a hocus-pocus solution for their woes. He pretended all it takes is buying their debt for less than half-a-cent on the dollar, as though he didn’t buy extremely old medical debt that no serious business would collect on. Much like in his PayDay lending episode, which ended with Sarah Silverman suggesting that people steal instead of take a loan, Oliver isn’t about offering solutions. He’s about big gestures and laughs. None of these, unfortunately, pays the bills; what it does do is create false hope, confusion, and yet another reason to blame the collector instead of taking responsibility and getting yourself out of debt.

At TrueAccord, we often ask ourselves: what are we to those in debt, and especially to those who are chronically in debt? Are we the gym teacher, shouting at the short-breathed kid to keep his pace up? Are we a doctor, waving our finger at the diabetic who wants another bite of a doughnut? Are we the policeman, giving them a ticket for speeding? Can we be to each what they need, using our targeting technology? As our technology gets better, we get closer to tailoring the right solution to each individual.

One thing is certain, though: the relationship between collectors and those they collect from is a long and complex process. However we position ourselves, our job is to chaperone people through the winding road to getting back on their feet and planning their cash flow. We build tools to give them maximum flexibility with their payout plan, and to easily change it when the unexpected happens (and it usually does). We hope to never see them again in our system, and we feel disappointed when we do, or when they promise something and then change their mind. Above all, instead of distancing ourselves from the situation or turning it into a joke, we get deeply involved because we care – because we want to make a tangible difference. And we do. Day by day. Dollar by dollar.

To see This Week Tonight diminish all this work, to see them repackage the human suffering and complex emotion into several minute tidbits so they can compete with Oprah for biggest giveaway for the poor… I find it demeaning and disrespectful. Almost cynical. And no matter how much truth there is on the show (and there is!), I can’t bring myself to support a simplistic representation of such an issue. That is why I can’t get behind TV’s biggest “giveaway” ever.


10 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Get Behind John Oliver’s Latest Debt Collection Piece

  1. Cheryl Burrows

    Well at last a company who has the same work ethic as me, when it comes to collecting debt and helping people how to manage their debt. Just a pity the clients are more target and profit driven. One of my clients complained to me that I should rather have been a debt counselor.
    I loved debt collecting as a profession due to the fact that one was negotiating a win win situation to make everyone happy. Thanks for the article.
    At least I am not alone with the way I have felt debt should be collected.

  2. Jerry Ashton

    I love your piece here, Ohad, although to quote you, I believe that you have “utterly missed the point.” The point is, Oliver is making a point – however you may not appreciate the style and format. You and I as fellow activists and critics of our industry are often also criticized by our very own fellow professionals. Think of that!

    I invite you to learn more about our role in this project and join us (in your own way) in and industry-supported approach to the problem of unpaid and unpayable medical debt. http://www.RIPMedicalDebt.org. Here’s a handbook for you as well: http://www.NoMoreMedicalDebt.com.


    1. Ohad Post author

      Jerry, thank you for the comment. I look forward to connecting and seeing how we can work together. I understand Oliver is making a point – I think the message is lost in the shuffle. “Debt collectors are bad” is too easy a punching bag. How do we solve that? I am not convinced Oliver is offering a solution.

  3. John

    Are you routinely leaving death threats on the debtor’s answering machines? Are you suing the debtor in the court that is the farthest from his home, but still has jurisdiction, to make it more likely that the debtor will lose by default? Do you then leverage law enforcement to collect assets that the debtor needs to hold a job? Do you send threatening letters goading the potential debtor to sign an affidavit or debt obligation to take ownership of debt that you have insufficient proof for? Do you regularly imply that the debtor should liquidate retirement savings to make your company go away, even though they are protected assets?

    If not, then a) the piece just wasn’t about you and b) pretending that these bad actors don’t thrife in the debt collection “industry” is precisely why all debt collection companies are seen as “guilty by association” of such tactics.

    1. Ohad Post author

      Hi John, thanks for the comment! Of course, we do none of the above. But please note two things: one, I’m not saying debt collection doesn’t have a ton of problems. I’m disagreeing with Oliver’s tricks that I don’t think benefitted people, not really. Two, this guilt by association – I understand but disagree with. It’s like claiming all men are guilty of rape because the majority of rapists are men. I understand where you’re coming from, though.

  4. Jerry Ashton

    Whoever “John” is, he certainly understands industry faultlines. Bravo. My feeling about John Oliver’s session is that it was as much educational as it was sensational. As for people in my industry, “The guilty fleeth when none pursueth.”

    1. Ohad Post author

      Jerry, do all debt collectors engage in illegal practices? Purchasing debt can be done legally. Is the problem with medical debt the debt collectors, or the medical system (as evidenced by medical debt driven down by ACA expansion, which I think is an incredible thing)?

      1. Jerry Ashton

        Don’t deflect from my posting, Ohad. It stands as written. John is on solid ground. Do I believe all debt collectors do …. ? Of course not; but that does not forgive us for not castigating those that do and putting them in the spotlight. The medical system is well skewered in my co-written book that you will find at http://www.NoMoreMedicalDebt.com. J


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