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We're Here to Help

In a time of great need across the country, Kiplinger steps up to offer the best financial advice we can.

In late August, as we were putting the finishing touches on the November issue, Hurricane Harvey unleashed a deluge of biblical proportions on Houston. After the rains stopped and the floodwaters receded, officials reported that of the more than 100,000 homes flooded by Harvey, some 80% weren’t covered by flood insurance.

The personal toll on those affected by the flooding—especially the families without flood insurance—is hard to fathom, and I figured that this was a time for Kiplinger to step up and offer the best financial advice we could. We sent staff writer Miriam Cross to Houston to see up close how families whose homes had flooded were drying out, digging out and, most important, dealing with the financial devastation, and we hired a local photographer to accompany her.

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Contributing editor Kim Lankford, who reported a similar story in 2008 after flooding in Wisconsin and Iowa, interviewed a raft of insurance experts about strategies to get the most from a flood insurance claim and, for those who are now thinking about buying coverage, how to shop for the best deal. Kim and Miriam added reporting on how victims with and without flood insurance can apply for FEMA grants as well as the best options for borrowing. Senior editor Sandy Block wove it all together. Disaster Relief: Financial Recovery in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey, the special report, focuses on Houston but is also a guide for victims of Irma and Maria and anyone caught in future natural disasters.

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A credit disaster. As we were creating the shooting script for that huge effort, another crisis rocked the world of personal finance. On September 7, Equifax, one of the three major credit bureaus, announced that hackers had broken into its website, potentially putting the sensitive data of almost 146 million consumers into the clutches of ID thieves. Contributing editor Lisa Gerstner spent the next three weeks following the drama (which culminated in the resignation of Equifax CEO Richard Smith) and produced the article How to Keep Your Data Safe After the Equifax Breach.

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We know from reader polls and your feedback that ID theft is one of your top financial worries. That one of the gatekeepers of this sensitive data let down its guard—in fact, could have prevented the breach had it been more diligent—is appalling. I recently wrote about my own struggle with ID theft in the September issue. I found the credit bureaus to be unresponsive, and getting in touch with a real person was nearly impossible.

My solution (and the one we are recommending for you, too) was to freeze all of my files, which means no new creditor can review my history unless I unfreeze my accounts. Unless you produce a police report showing you were a victim of ID theft, in most states you’ll pay each bureau to freeze your files—often $10 a pop—and you’ll pay again to unfreeze them. If you and a spouse are freezing your accounts at all three bureaus, you could pay $60—plus fees to unfreeze at least one account when you apply for credit. In the case of Equifax, you are paying the company that exposed your data to lock it up again (Equifax is offering free freezes through January 31).

Credit bureaus are loosely regulated, and we have very little control over our own information. However you feel about government regulation, this is one situation in which the government needs to come to our aid. A number of state attorneys general are investigating, and legislation has been proposed in Congress to make credit freezes free. I believe we should be able to freeze and unfreeze our credit reports without a fee. If you agree, write to (or e-mail or Facebook or tweet) your representatives.

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