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If you e-filed your return and are expecting a refund, you should get it pretty quickly. The Internal Revenue Service says most refunds are issued in less than 21 days. That's assuming your tax return is complete, has no errors and is not affected by identity theft or fraud. So if it's been more than 21 days and you haven't seen any sign of it, the IRS gives you several ways to track it down.
Go online, call a special toll-free number or even use your smartphone to check your refund status. The tracking options work regardless of whether you're awaiting a check in the mail or you've instructed the IRS to directly deposit your tax cash into one or multiple accounts.
The waiting game
Since 2003, taxpayers have been able to use the IRS' "Where's My Refund?" Web page to track down refunds directly from their own computers.
But exactly when you need this service depends on how you filed your tax return. The IRS says you can find out exactly where in the system your return is within 24 hours after the agency has received your e-filed tax return. If you mailed your return, you must wait four weeks before you can track it via the online search tool.
However, the IRS recommends that taxpayers not call too early or too often.
The agency says that refunds are generally issued within 21 days after receipt of a tax return and taxpayers should call only if they've been waiting longer than that. The best times to call, according to the IRS, are evenings and weekends. Also, one call a day should be sufficient since the system is updated just once every 24 hours.
However, if it's been more than three weeks since you filed and you're still waiting for your refund, it's time to log on and locate your money.
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Necessary tracking data
To get started, you'll need your Social Security number, the filing status entered on your return and the amount you're expecting. Joint-return filers should enter the name and tax ID number of the spouse shown first on the return.
And don't do any rounding on the refund amount entry. The tracking program wants precise dollars and cents.
If you have any questions about exactly what information the IRS wants here, the "Where's My Refund?" program has links that will open up new screens with explanations of where you can find the information on your copy of your tax return.
After you've entered the necessary data, click and wait for the good news that your check is on its way.
Dialing for tax dollars
If you don't have access to a computer or simply prefer using a telephone, you still can call the IRS to track down your refund.
A special automated toll-free line is dedicated to refund status reports. When you call (800) 829-1954, you'll need the same information the online system requires.
In addition to having a copy of your return on hand, it's always a good idea to have paper and pen ready to jot down any information, additional instructions or follow-up phone numbers that you might receive during the call.
And don't call unless it's been three weeks since you e-filed or six weeks since you snail-mailed your paper return.
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There's an app for that
The IRS has gone mobile with IRS2Go, the agency's smartphone application. It allows taxpayers to check on the status of their tax refund.
Once again, you'll need your Social Security number, filing status and expected refund amount to use IRS2Go.
After you find out what's up with your refund, you can use the app to sign up for IRS tax updates or follow the IRS on social media.
The IRS refund tracking app also has a "contacts" section, with telephone numbers and hours for the agency's various tax help lines, as well as links to help you find your local taxpayer assistance center if you want some face-to-face help. IRS2Go also can help you locate free tax preparation help in your area.
The IRS2Go app is free and available for Apple and Android devices.
What's the holdup?
Regardless of which tracking method is used, the IRS says that in most cases a taxpayer will learn his or her return was received and is being processed.
When the tax check is indeed in the mail, the tracking systems will provide the date it was sent out or directly deposited to the filer's chosen account.
But even when the news is bad, the online program might be able to offer some immediate help. If, for example, the U.S. Postal Service bounced your refund check back to the IRS as undeliverable, the IRS online tracker now allows some taxpayers to correct or change their mailing addresses online so they can get their refunds ASAP.
If this option is available in your case, "Where's My Refund?" will prompt you to take the appropriate steps.
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What if it's lost?
Occasionally, though, a tax check actually is lost.
If your online or automated phone inquiry reveals your refund was mailed but it still hasn't shown up, you can begin an online refund trace using the "Where's My Refund?" program. This option is available for filers who are still waiting for refund money the IRS says was mailed at least 28 days earlier. If this is your situation, the online program will prompt you to take the next steps.
You also can call the IRS' main help line at (800) 829-1040. But be forewarned: During the filing season, you're probably in for a wait.
More localized assistance might be a better move. Check the IRS' "Help & Resources" Web page for local and regional agency addresses and numbers.
Once the IRS verifies your refund check is lost or stolen, the replacement process will begin. You might be asked to complete Form 3911, Taxpayer Statement Regarding Refund, to get the ball rolling.
Check your bank account
The IRS has one final piece of advice for eager filers still looking for that refund: If you requested direct deposit, check your bank account regularly.
The IRS will simply transfer the money to your financial institution without sending you any other notification. It's up to you to find out if the tax refund is already in your account.