It's getting cheaper, easier, and faster to shut off access to your credit reports and prevent identity thieves from opening new credit accounts in your name.

Equifax, one of the big three national credit bureaus, recently launched Lock & Alert, a service that lets consumers open and close access to their Equifax credit report from their computer or smartphone.

The service employs a "credit report lock" to open or shut the door to prospective creditors who want to see your Equifax file before approving a loan for you or someone posing as you. That's a lot like a security freeze, which is already one of the best defenses against identity fraud.

MORE ON THE EQUIFAX DATA BREACH

But Lock & Alert promises to be faster and easier than a freeze, and free for life.

Experian allows consumers to "lock" their credit as part of its credit-monitoring services for $10 to $25 a month. TransUnion has offered a free standalone lock for consumers since 2016, but only in exchange for an agreement to receive targeted marketing offers.

Innovis, a fourth, lesser-known credit bureau, offers credit freezes free of charge but doesn't offer a "lock" service, according to Mike Catello, its vice president of operations.

The Equifax data breach, revealed in September 2017, compromised the personal information of more than 145 million Americans. Currently, only 12 percent of identity theft involves new-account fraud. But locking every door and window to your financial house is essential to safeguarding your privacy against crooks, and every protection tool should be considered.

So CR downloaded the mobile app and scrutinized the fine print to see how Lock & Alert stacks up. Here's what we found.

Better Than a Freeze

Convenience. The app was super simple. It opened to a single screen with a big red "Unlocked" on it. When we swiped a finger across that icon, a big green "Locked" appeared several seconds later.

We unlocked the credit report just as easily a few moments later. You can keep your report locked by default; unlock it when you're applying for credit, homeowners or car insurance, new cellular service, or other transactions requiring a credit check, then lock it back up.

That's easier than placing a freeze via a credit bureau's website, U.S. mail, or phone, which entails entering identity information (as with a lock), answering questions about what's on your credit history, entering credit card numbers and billing address (when fees apply), and receiving and keeping track of a personal identification number that you'll need if you want to lift the freeze in the future.

Cost. It's hard to argue against free. A freeze, on the other hand, typically costs $5 to $10 each time you place or lift one at the Experian and TransUnion credit bureaus.

Freeze fees are changing, however. Since last Fall, Equifax has waived its fee for placing and lifting security freezes until June 30, 2018. Innovis charges nothing for security freezes.

Most states allow credit bureaus to charge a fee. Eight states prohibit fees for placing a freeze (though four of them allow fees for lifting a freeze), according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, is joining other consumer groups to advocate for ending freeze fees in other states.

Consumers Union also supports a bill in the Senate that would freeze all credit reports by default, unfreeze them only with the consumer's consent, and eliminate all freeze fees.

Similar to a Freeze

Security. To verify your identity for a freeze, credit bureaus may ask you questions based on information in your credit file that only you should know. Lock & Alert uses that same "knowledge-based authentication" when you sign up. But it also gives you the option of having a security code sent to your smartphone to verify your identity with two-factor authentication.

“We consider both to be secure options for authenticating a consumer’s identity,” said Nancy Bistritz-Balkan, an Equifax spokeswoman, in an email response to questions from Consumer Reports.

Not as Good as a Freeze

Consumer protections for freezes, which are mandated by state law, are stronger than the unregulated provisions of a contract that govern a lock, says Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst at Consumers Union.

"There's a huge difference," says Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. "In many states, if something goes wrong, you have the right to go to court with a freeze."

Although the Lock & Alert contract contains no arbitration clause and explicitly says it will never add one, other provisions disclaim all liability and make no guaranty that the lock will do what it's supposed to.

“We recognize that security freezes are mandated and regulated by the states, while a credit report lock is not,” Bistritz-Balkan said. “For the lock, Equifax will continue to be subject to enforcement actions by federal regulators including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission.”

Who can and can't see your report. Your report isn't closed to everyone. Under both a freeze and lock, it can still be accessed by your existing creditors, bill collectors, government agencies, credit monitoring and identity protection services, and marketers offering prescreened credit and insurance offers.

But the Lock & Alert contract also allows access to companies considering your application for employment, which many state freeze laws allow, as well as others not named. And it doesn't actually say who can't see your report beyond "certain third parties.”

Bistritz-Balkan said Lock & Alert would restrict access to consumers’ Equifax credit reports “with the same limited exceptions as freezes.”

How to Use Freezes and Locks

Three in four consumers have never frozen their credit report, according to a survey of 1,000 adults with credit or debit cards. It was conducted right after the Equifax breach was made public last September by CompareCards.com, a credit card comparison website. Almost the same percentage said they also didn’t plan to place a freeze in response to the breach.

"Making it easier to lock and unlock your credit report probably reduces some of the barriers for people who see a freeze as a hassle," says Brian Karimzad, vice president of research at CompareCards.

Control access to your credit report. “Locks appear to block access to credit reports the same way that credit freezes do,” said Mike Litt, consumer campaign director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in a prepared statement about Lock & Alert.

Use freezes or locks as they best serve your needs. Depending on what you value most, choose either a lock or freeze based on our analysis. Cost-conscious consumers may want to cobble together a mix based on what the leading credit bureaus provide. Equifax offers free freezes (until June 30) and locks. TransUnion has a free lock but charges for freezes (depending on state law). Experian charges for freezes (depending on state law) and locks. And Innovis provides free freezes. You must go to the website or call each credit bureau to place a freeze on your credit report.

Don’t forget the block on marketing. Neither a freeze nor a lock prevents financial-products companies from getting into your report to size you up for prescreened offers of credit and insurance. If you don’t want these, opt out here.

Secure the other doors to your personal finances. The bulk of identity theft involves existing financial accounts, which aren’t protected by a freeze or lock. So make sure you take other steps to lock down other entry points that hackers may use, guard your tax returns and health insurance, and set up email and text alerts on your bank checking and savings accounts and credit cards, which can warn you about suspicious transactions.