Equifax headquarters building in Atlanta
Doug Whiteman/Bankrate

A fundamental lesson from the unprecedented Equifax hack is one that’s already very familiar to consumers affected by earlier scandals at Wells Fargo: You’re on your own.

You need to be proactive and act as your own defense, not wait for a giant company to take care of you and do the right thing.

The initial aid offered by Equifax — which reported that a massive data breach left the personal data of nearly half of all Americans at risk — is wimpy. It won’t do a whole lot to protect you.

You’ve got to do stuff and speak up the way bank customers did after a series of bombshells from Wells Fargo, including that millions of consumers were saddled with bogus accounts.

Wells Fargo lessons

Equifax made its revelation that 143 million Americans had been left vulnerable to identity theft almost 12 months after Wells Fargo admitted to fabricating nearly 2 million accounts in an effort to boost its bottom line. The banking giant, which now says there may have been as many as 3.5 million phony-baloney accounts, agreed to pay $185 million to regulators and settle a class action for $142 million.

Over the past 12 months, the San Francisco-based bank paid an another $80 million in refunds to auto loan customers, and has been pelted by lawsuits claiming it improperly made changes to homeowners’ existing mortgages.

Besides going to court, consumers took other action, including taking their business elsewhere. Wells Fargo saw fewer new sign-ups for checking accounts, and some existing customers went in search of a new bank.

Consumers who wondered if fake accounts had been opened in their names ordered free credit reports from all three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) to see if there were any errors or suspicious activity — so they could file disputes quickly.

You can order a free credit report and credit score from myBankrate.

The best moves for Wells Fargo customers required that they be aggressive.

What Equifax victims should do

In response to the second biggest hack of all time, trailing only Yahoo, Equifax offered all Americans free credit monitoring for a year through its service TrustedID, which allows consumers to lock down their credit report.

That’s not enough.

“I think what’s being overlooked to some extent is the fact that the data that was compromised has perpetual value to a fraudster,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer. “In five, 10, 15 years that data will still be valuable to a fraudster.”

But what can you do? You can’t change your name, date of birth or Social Security number as easily as you can get a fresh credit card.

The least invasive step is to set up a fraud alert, which normally last 90 days and tells creditors to contact you to verify your identity before approving you for new credit. If you place a fraud alert with one reporting agency, that should extend to all of them.

A more permanent solution is to put a freeze on each of your three credit reports. This will stop a fraudster from opening new accounts with financial institutions you’re not currently doing business with. You have to pay around $10 for each freeze, in addition to a fee to unlock the freeze when you want to apply for a loan.

Equifax has announced that it will waive its credit freeze fee until Nov. 21. It was not immediately clear whether you’ll still have to pay to unfreeze your account when you want to take out a loan, or if customers who paid for the service prior to the announcement will be reimbursed.

You’ve got to move now

If you think you might need to enact a fraud alert or credit freeze, don’t put it off. No one is going to do any of that for you.

Hackers almost certainly have your most sensitive personal data. Aside from enacting alerts and credit checks, you need to log onto your credit card accounts just as you check out your fantasy football lineup or Instagram feed.

Some Wells Fargo customers were willing to switch their checking account or savings account, despite any inconveniences. You need to be just as willing to take control if you’re concerned about becoming an identity fraud victim thanks to Equifax.

You can no longer afford to be passive.

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