Millions of Americans still haven't received last year's tax refunds. What's the big holdup?

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As we draw closer to the tax deadline for this year, millions of Americans still haven't received their tax refunds from last year.

The IRS's Taxpayer Advocate calls it the most challenging year ever for taxpayers. The IRS had a backlog of 11 million returns at the start of this tax season.

Now folks say the IRS isn't telling them what happened to last year's refunds.

RELATED: 7 On Your Side, experts to host Tax Chat on March 4 to answer viewer questions

Many viewers tell 7 On Your Side they've been waiting since last summer for their refunds -- in many cases thousands of dollars.

And they can't get answers from the IRS.

The phone lines are jammed, and the "Where's My Refund" tracking tool gives a mysterious response.

"It says if you filed electronically you should have it in six weeks, we're a little delayed," said Jeff Fong of Foster City.

"I know it's delayed but it's been almost a year," said Bonnie Alesna of Redwood City.

"Where is it? Yeah, I need to know the status," said Lark Hilliard of Orinda.

It's a dilemma facing millions of Americans who never got last year's tax refunds.

"Did they send a check out? Did it get lost in the mail?" said Fong.

"They can't tell me the status," said Hilliard.

"It's like $4,800. I really need it, it would be really helpful," said Alesna.

"It's a pain point for sure and it's frustrating but unfortunately we just have to wait," said Ted Rossman of Bankrate.com. He points to a report by the IRS's Taxpayer Advocate, saying millions of tax returns sat in limbo during the pandemic when IRS offices shut down. Truckloads of paper returns sat unopened for months.

IRS staff were diverted to other duties, delivering three rounds of stimulus checks as well as Child Tax Credits.

The Taxpayer Advocate reported a backlog of 11 million returns from last year. Millions more were awaiting review -- as many as 24 million were delayed altogether.

"It's really crazy because the IRS usually doesn't have anywhere near that number of unprocessed returns from last time and now we've started this year's filings," said Rossman.

Most unsettling, those waiting since last year can't get information about what happened to their returns.

Jeffrey Fong is waiting on a five-figure refund. "I just want to talk to a live person. Like, is there a secret number to call?" he asked.

He kept checking the "Where's My Refund" tracker on the IRS website. At first it said his return was pending. Then - suddenly, nothing.

"All of a sudden it just went off the grid," said Fong.

Here's what happens when enters his information. Where's My Refund says: "We cannot provide any information about your refund."

The same thing happened to Bonnie Alesna. "It kept coming up 'We have no information,'" said Alesna.

And Lark Hilliard, which has her imagining the worst. "'We cannot provide any information about your refund,'" she quoted.

"It makes me feel as if there's identity fraud or identity theft... did they get my federal refund?" she continued.

"I just want someone to look it up. 'You're audited,' 'We lost it,'" said Fong.

Fong says even an audit notice is better than no information.

The Taxpayer Advocate report says the "Where's My Refund" tool should be more helpful.

"Yes I would totally agree," said Hilliard.

IRS spokesman Raphael Tulino says the backlog will clear -- eventually. "We're just asking that everyone be patient and keep waiting," Tulino said.

Which is little comfort.

"So now I might write to President Biden," said Hilliard.

A late development that might shed some light on this: Jeffrey Fong got through to the IRS accounts department. He was told the "Where's My Refund" tool only has information about 2021 returns! The press office is still trying to verify this... so, if you're still looking for last year's information, it may be that you're going to hit that dead end.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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