updated 4/13/2010 7:47:11 AM ET 2010-04-13T11:47:11

You're getting a tax refund, so you filed early. So where's your check?

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Well, you can stop bugging your mail carrier. There are more productive ways to track down your Internal Revenue Service cash.

You can go online or call a special toll-free number to check your refund status, 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 return. Processing times differ for paper and electronically filed 1040s. How you ask the IRS to send you your money also makes a difference.

If you e-file and request direct deposit, the IRS says it should take no longer than three weeks for you to get your refund. If you filed a paper return and asked that your check be mailed to you, it could take up to eight weeks.

Once you're past the time frame for issuance of your refund, it's time to log on and locate your money.

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 return.

After you've entered the necessary data, then click and wait for the good news that your check is in the mail.

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, as with the online system, don't call unless it's been the requisite number of weeks for your filing method.

What's the holdup?
In most cases, the IRS says a taxpayer will learn via the Web site or by phone that 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.

Speeding up the process
Waiting any longer than necessary for a refund is one of the most infuriating parts of the filing process. That's why the IRS encourages taxpayers to do what they can to speed up the process.

The quickest path to your refund, says the IRS, is through e-filing and refund direct deposit. This usually cuts a refund wait to half of what paper filers face. In fact, says the agency, some refunds, especially those filed for early in the tax season, are issued in as little as two weeks.

Sometimes a slow refund is the filer's fault rather than the result of an overwhelmed IRS. Refunds are delayed when a taxpayer makes a mistake on a return, causing the agency to spend time tracking down the correct data. Some common filing blunders are math miscalculations, a mismatched name and Social Security number, a missing signature or omitted attachments such as W-2s or IRS schedules.

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' "How to Contact Us" 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.

What if the check is wrong?
When a refund check finally arrives, sometimes there are more questions than answers.

If you get a refund and you weren't expecting one, or the check is for more than you thought you'd get, don't cash it. The IRS should send you a notice explaining the difference, along with any additional information or instructions. If you don't get an explanatory letter within two weeks of getting your questionable refund, it's time to call (800) 829-1040 again.

On the other hand, if your refund is less than you expected, go ahead and cash the check. If further investigation reveals that you should have received more, the IRS will make up the difference (plus a bit of interest if it takes more than 45 days to correct the error) and send you another check for the balance due.

Check your bank account
The IRS has one final piece of advice for anxious 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 refund is already in your account.

© 2012 Bankrate.com

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