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How to track your tax refund's whereabouts

Filing your tax return electronically shouldn't have to feel like sending something into outer space. There's no need to be in the dark about whether the IRS has accepted your tax return and when you can expect to receive your refund.

For example, tax-filing early birds who got their returns in electronically by Jan. 14, and elected to get their refund via direct deposit, should have received their money on Jan. 29. That's the first direct deposit date set by the IRS.

Assuming you weren't among those early filers, you can use the Where's My Refund tool on the IRS website to track your tax return and refund. It lets you check on the status of an electronic return within 24 hours of the IRS receiving it. But you'll have to wait four weeks after you mailed a paper return to check its status with the tool. Another great reason to e-file if you can.

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Where's My Refund lets you follow your return through three stages: Return Received, Refund Approved and Refund Sent. The site is updated only once per day, typically at night, so you'll need to check it just once daily to get any update. Only after the IRS has received your tax return, finished processing it and approved your refund will a personalized refund date be posted.

If the tool shows"Refund Sent" and you check your bank account but don't see it deposited, don't be alarmed. This status tells you the date the IRS sent the money to your financial institution. Know that it may take your bank as many as five business days to credit it to your account. However, if the refund still doesn't show up as a credit to your account, you should then follow up with the IRS and inquire as to where it was sent.

For those who can't wait that long, you can have your refund credited to a cash card instead of a bank account. Tax-preparation firm Jackson Hewitt has teamed up with American Express (AXP) to offer the Amex Serve Card. They say refunds are credited to the card as soon as the IRS notifies them that the refund has been sent, so it can be a few days faster than a direct deposit to your account. Of course, you have to use Jackson Hewitt to get this service.

If you've e-filed your tax return and it's taking more than 21 days for the IRS to update your status to Refund Approved, there could be several explanations. You tax return could take longer to process because it includes errors or is incomplete.

You could also be a victim of ID theft or tax return fraud. The IRS says you must wait until it has been 21 days after e-filing or six weeks after you mail a paper return before you contact it. The IRS number to call is 800-829-1040. But be prepared for a long wait. The agency is chronically understaffed, and call volumes are extremely high this time of year.

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