Television host John Oliver announced this week that he bought—and forgave—nearly $15 million of consumer medical debt. Billed as the “single biggest television giveaway,” it relieved some 9,000 people of old medical debt. In the segment, which aired on his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” he revealed that he created a company called “Central Asset Recovery Professionals Inc.,” and bought out-of-statute debt from consumers in Texas for a total of about $60,000, or considerably less than a penny on the dollar. He then turned around and donated the debt to a non-profit organization which declared the debt forgiven.
The program exposed how “ludicrously easy” it is to buy consumer debt, along with the sensitive information associated with those accounts.
But what if you’re not one of the lucky recipients of Oliver’s largesse? You may still be able to get your debt reduced, or even wiped out. Here’s how:
1. Insist that any debt collector who contacts you send written confirmation of the debt. This is your right under federal law. Trying to resolve a debt with someone who has called out of the blue is incredibly risky. You could be dealing with a scammer, or you could wind up paying a debt that can’t be legally enforced.
2. Research the statute of limitations for your debt. This is sometimes easier said than done since state laws aren’t always cut and dry when it comes to defining how long a debt collector can sue to collect certain types of debt. But a good place to start is to type the words “site:Nationallist.com + (insert the name of your state) + consumer statute of limitations” into a search engine. Your state attorney general’s office may be able to help as well. If you believe the statute of limitations has expired for your debt, communicate that to the collector in writing. You have the right under federal law to ask a collector to stop contacting you.
3. Do not pay a debt using a reloadable prepaid card. Scammers prefer those cards because they allow them to disappear with your money, which is not traceable or refundable.
4. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. As Oliver demonstrated, some of this debt is sold for pennies on the dollar or less. Generally the older the debt, the better the deals you can cut. And more recent debts can sometimes be negotiated aggressively if you’re in difficult financial straits.
5. Check your credit reports and credit scores. You can get your full credit reports for free once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. Collection accounts can destroy your credit scores, and multiple collection accounts may increase the damage. If your report shows multiple collection accounts for the same debt, you can dispute all but the most recent account. (Additionally, if you get a letter indicating you are one of the consumers whose debt Oliver’s company forgave, you may find that a collection agency that previously held that debt is no longer interested in reporting it. If you dispute it, and it’s not confirmed by the source, it will be removed.)
Here’s the best part of Oliver’s giveaway: He didn’t accidentally turn these cancelled medical debts into IRS debts. Forgiven debt is considered taxable income, and generally creditors are required to send a 1099-C form to debtors reporting cancelled debt of $600 or more. The IRS gets a copy of that form as well. Debtors, in turn, are required to include that amount in their taxable income, and pay taxes on it, unless they can demonstrate to the IRS that they qualify for an exclusion, such as the “insolvency exclusion,” by filing IRS Form 982. If they can’t pay those taxes they can wind up with a tax lien on their credit reports.
However, by working with the non-profit organization RIP Medical Debt, Oliver sidestepped this problem. The organization states on its website that “forgiveness of the debt does not result in income to the debtor if that forgiveness is a gift that comes from a detached and disinterested generosity. We will not file a Form 1099-C with the IRS.” So Oliver didn’t just help these debtors once, he helped them twice.
Gerri Detweiler is head of market education for Nav, which provides small business owners with free business and personal credit scores. She is also coauthor of the free Kindle ebook, “Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights” and has written extensively about debt collection.