Color of Money: Setting up an IRS online account is well worth your while

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- In today's world, we all have to play defense when it comes to our financial data.

We all need long computer passwords, anti-virus software and passcodes for our phones -- and we could really use an identity-theft prevention class.

You also have to get used to watching your online accounts. I have so many automatic alerts beeping on my phone all day that it's maddening. But it's also necessary.

So, in my constant quest to be cautious, I recently added another item to my watch list: setting up an IRS online account. It's one way to keep an eye out for suspicious activity with your federal tax return.

Meanwhile, I'm encouraging people to file their returns as soon as possible. But for a number of reasons, you may not be in a rush to file, especially if you aren't getting a refund. Or maybe you're still waiting for some tax information to arrive. While you wait to finish, how can you be sure someone hasn't filed a return in your name?

For me, I regularly sign on to my IRS online account. In fact, I just checked, and, with much relief, I saw this message at the top of the page: "Your 2017 tax return has not been processed."

After a return has been filed, the processing takes about 21 days (electronic returns) or six weeks (paper returns), according to the IRS. If you owe Uncle Sam, you have until April 17 to submit your return and pay your tax bill to avoid penalties and interest.

In a recent column, I directed readers to the IRS site to sign up for an online account. That particular page includes instructions to activate an account if you've received an IRS CP301 notice, which confirms that you registered for an online account. I should have made it clear that you could still create an account using either one of the first two links under the Tools section. Nonetheless, here's a more direct link:

In the middle of this page, there's a blue box that says, "View your account." Click on link and you'll see a "Sign Up" section to create an account.

But be forewarned: It may take a week or two before you can complete the process. And you can't be mad, because the security is tight when you are activating an IRS account -- as it should be.

Before you start, you'll need some information about yourself to register, including your tax filing status. To verify your identity, the IRS will also need a number from one of your financial accounts, such as a credit card, auto loan, mortgage or home equity loan or line of credit. You won't be charged any money, and you won't be sharing any account balances or other financial information with the agency. If you've placed a credit security freeze with Experian -- the credit bureau that the IRS uses to verify your identity -- you'll need to have it temporarily removed before continuing.

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Because this process involves verifying your identity with Experian, you may get a "soft inquiry" on your credit file. However, don't worry; such inquiries do not affect your credit score.

Next, and this is important, you need a mobile device. It's a second level of security. Whenever I sign on to my IRS account, I get a security code sent to my cellphone. But you must use a U.S.-based mobile phone number registered in your name, and it must be able to receive text messages. The number cannot be for a Pay-As-You-Go (prepaid), landline, Skype, Google Voice or virtual account.

You also have to provide an email address. I was able to get through most of the registration process, including choosing a username and password as well as setting up two other security measures.

However, I got sidelined when the IRS tried to verify my mobile number. I'm under a family plan, and I'm not the primary account holder. At this point, I opted to receive an activation code by postal mail. The IRS says it takes five to 10 business days to get the notice. It took me eight days. And once received, I had 30 days before my activation code expired.

If you get a notice about signing up for an online service and you didn't initiate the process, immediately contact the IRS online services information hotline at (888) 841-4648.

One thing to keep in mind. You won't find refund-status information on your account. For that, go to

Don't be daunted by the process of creating an IRS online account. All the hoops you have to jump through are well worth it for your protection.


Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook ( Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group



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