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Taxpayers can now access tax account balances online

The Internal Revenue Service is continuing its Future State efforts to get more of us digitally involved with our taxes.

The latest move is a new an online way to check on our tax balances.

Taxes spelled out on computer keyboard

Essentially, each of us has a taxpayer account with the IRS based on our filings. The online access option introduced last week lets us view our tax account balances, including what we owe in tax and any added penalties and interest.

The IRS is hoping that when we digitally discover that we owe Uncle Sam some money, we'll then take advantage of the agency's various online payment options, such as Direct Pay, paying by debit or credit card, the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS) or establishing an online payment agreement.

The ability to find out basic taxpayer account information, says the IRS, is just the beginning. The IRS expects to add additional capabilities as they are developed and, of course, tested for user ease and security.

"This new tool is part of the IRS' commitment to improve and expand taxpayer services by providing additional online taxpayer options," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in a statement announcing the new online account access. "The new balance due feature, paired with the existing online payment options, will increase the availability of self-service interactions with the IRS. This will give taxpayers another way to take care of their tax obligations in a fast and secure manner."

Taxpayer online account pros and cons: In theory it's a good idea. More and more of us are taking care of things online. This month, cyber shopping has eclipsed in-person store sales.

On the strictly financial side, online transactions nowadays are commonplace.

Even I, someone just a few years older than the e-device addicted millennials, gets and pays all my bills electronically. Over the weekend I also took care of some annual transactions -- auto tag renewal, property tax payments and contributions to our favorite charities -- via my laptop.

As for taxes, I already pay our estimated taxes four times a year via EFTPS. I also use that option when we owe Uncle Sam in April.

So the IRS option to check my tax account is one that I can see as being helpful.

Yes, there's likely to be a bit more concern about the online accessibility of taxpayer data given recent hacks of IRS web options, such as the successful tapping of its Get Transcript tool and the failed attempt to break into its IRS e-file PIN system.

But life, real and cyber, is inherently risky. We, both the agencies and companies that offer us online options and all us users, must be more diligent in our identity theft fighting efforts.

And as I age, the easier things are for me, the more I like them. That definitely includes electronic transactions.

IRS benefits, too: Online taxpayer account access also is a potential win for not only digitally inclined taxpayers, but also the tax agency.

Note the commish's reference to self-service interactions. The IRS is following private sector examples and looking for more ways to do its job with fewer personnel. The reason, as with businesses, is cost.

More done by fewer workers is more cost effective for private companies and government agencies. That's particularly appealing to the IRS, which has faced continual cuts in its operating budgets over the years.

Such budget cuts are likely to continue now that the Republican Party, which tends to support, at least when it comes to expenditures, smaller government, will control the White House as well as the House and Senate for at least the next two years.

Getting customers -- taxpayers in the IRS' case -- to take care of more things themselves online is one way to deal with a reduced workforce.

The IRS has seen this coming and adapted. It currently offers around two dozen online tax tools for use by individual taxpayers, businesses and tax professionals.

Getting to your IRS account: Before accessing the new account balance tool, taxpayers must authenticate their identities through the Secure Access process.

To register for the first time, you must have an email address, a text-enabled mobile phone in your name and specific financial information, such as a credit card number or specific loan numbers.

Once you've registered, then you'll go through a two-step authentication process to sign into your account. The IRS has been instituting this dual-verification system for more and more of its apps as part of its Security Summit upgrades.

This means returning users must have their credentials -- that's your username and password -- plus a security code sent as a text to your mobile phone or via email. The IRS texts and emails will only contain one-time activation codes.

If you've already signed up using Secure Access for Get Transcript Online or Get an IP PIN, you don't have to do it again. You may use your same username and password.

As part of the security process to authenticate taxpayers, the IRS will send verification, activation or security codes via email and text. The IRS warns taxpayers that it will not initiate contact via text or email asking for log-in information or personal data.

You can get full details on how to register for various IRS online tools at the agency's Secure Access web page.

Timing your account inquiries: While one of the lures of online transactions is the 24/7 availability,'s account balance inquiry option isn't there yet.

You can find out how much tax you owe on weekdays only between 6 a.m. and 12:30 a.m. Eastern Time. On Saturdays, the online tool is available between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. ET. On Sundays, it's operational between 6 p.m. to midnight ET. So night owls like me are going to have to make a point of checking in before the wee morning hours.

And don't be an obsessive account checker. It won't do you any good. The IRS says balances will be updated just once every 24 hours, usually overnight. 

Ahh, that explains what the IRS will be doing in those post-midnight hours that the account balance service is offline.

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