Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: 9/1/06 What are my chances of recovering a deleted file?

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) August 31, 2006 11:44 AM PDT

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9/1/06 What are my chances of recovering a deleted file?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 8/31/06 11:44 AM

Question:

I have a hypothetical question: What if you've accidentally deleted important files, emptied them from the recycling bin, then want to get them back? If you immediately realize what you did, is there anything that can be done to get the files back? Is there any software I can purchase to recover those files? Are there any available recovery services? What other steps should I take in event like this--turning off the computer right away? Is there any hope to recover these files, or are they gone for good? I hope these questions don't sound silly to you, but I want to know just in case I ever do such an unthinkable mistake. Thanks!

Submitted by: Katherine R. of Glendale, California

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Answer:


Dear Katherine, your question is hardly a silly one! In fact, it is a great question, and as you'll see, the fact you are taking a proactive approach to an accidental deletion of files will prove vital in the event you encounter the situation you described.

Let's consider what happens when you move a file to the Recycling Bin and then empty the latter. Although the file is no longer listed in your Windows database, it is still in your drive, exactly where it resided before being deleted. Windows neither moves nor erases the file; instead, it simply marks the space in which it is located as available for immediate use.

Because the file in question has not been deleted, it usually can be retrieved. The trick is to do so before Windows or another program starts writing new data in that newly available space. Time is of the essence, so the first thing to do once you realize a file has mistakenly been deleted is to stop using your computer. Doing so minimizes the chances of the space in question being overwritten by Windows and other programs, thus increasing the likelihood of a successful recovery.

About the worst thing you can do is turn off and/or reboot your PC, as both processes require your operating system to write data on your hard drive. Also, if there are any disk maintenance utilities (such as a disk defragmenter) running in the background, it is imperative that you abort them at once.
To recover a deleted file (regardless of whether or not it was accidentally deleted), you will essentially need to let Windows know the space in question is no longer available, so it can write data elsewhere. Fortunately, there are "undelete" utilities designed to do just that, and one of the better ones, Restoration, is free. You can download this utility from Download.com:

http://www.download.com/Restoration/3003-2094_4-10322949.html

Here's where the proactive approach pays off. What do you think will happen if you don't already have this or a similar application in your computer, and accidentally delete an important or precious file? You will inevitably have to rely on your browser to search for an application and/or its download site, then download installation or executable files, and finally install and/or run the program. All those steps involve an awful lot of writing, and Murphy's Law all but guarantees that some of the temporary installation files will be written right over that PowerPoint document or that picture of you and Twiggy the Water Skiing Squirrel you are trying to save!

Restoration is very simple to use. Once you download the executable files and start the application, you simply specify the drive for recovery from the drop-down menu on the upper right corner of the application window, then click the Search Deleted Files button. There is a box above this button in which you can enter the name of the file you want to recover. You can either do so before starting the scan, or after the latter is complete to filter the results. Once you find the file in question, select it with your mouse, then click the Restore by Copying button. The application will suggest you restore to a different drive, if possible, to avoid overwriting other deleted data which you might also want to retrieve. If you need to undelete more than one file, this might be a good idea.

I have noticed that searching deleted files by name not always yields the expected results. For example, a JPEG image saved as "Twiggy," accidentally moved to the recycling bin, and subsequently deleted might not show up as "Twiggy" in the search results. However, the file is both there and recoverable; it might be listed as "Doc1.JPEG" and its location listed as something like "C:\RECYCLERS..." Thus, before you go into panic mode, it behooves you to look both at the file extension of items listed under the Name column, as well as the entries under the Modified column. If there is a JPEG file listed and it was modified five minutes ago - around the time you accidentally deleted "Twiggy" - chances are you found your file.

Remember, you have nothing to lose by restoring a deleted file. If it turns out it was the wrong file, you can try another. But consider restoring the files to a different drive to avoid accidentally overwriting the very file you are trying to recover. A USB flash drive would be a reasonable and cost-effective option if your PC only has one hard drive.

Understand, there are no guarantees that you will be able to recover a file either with Restoration, with similar software, or even with a professional data recovery service. And it is always possible for a restored file to be corrupt. But at least you tried!

If you would like to learn a bit more about recovering deleted files, the following links will take you to short, helpful articles:

http://www.aumha.org/a/recover.php
http://www.geekgirls.com/windows_recycle_bin.htm
http://www.jakeludington.com/ask_jake/20060713_recover_deleted_files.html

Restoration is just one of a number of "undelete" utilities available, and they tend to differ in features. Some of the more powerful ones will set you back hundreds of dollars, but there are some affordable choices. Among the latter you will find Norton Utilities (now part of the Norton SystemWorks Suite, though you might be able to find a stand-alone version):

http://www.symantec.com/home_homeoffice/products/overview.jsp?pcid=sp&pvid=nsw2006

As far as professional data recovery services, they are probably overkill for the average home user. Moreover, these services are very, very expensive, so you should probably think of them as a last resort. But if circumstances warrant considering one of these outfits, you should be able to find them listed in your phone book under "Data Recovery." You can also look for them in the classified section of computer and technology magazines. You will always find a few listed in the back of PC Magazine.

Chances are, as you read about recovering deleted files, you wondered whether there is a way to make sure a deleted item stays that way - deleted, gone for good. Restoration has the capability of "erasing" files by overwriting them. When you run the application, you'll notice the word Others on the menu bar. Clicking it opens a short drop-down menu, the second option being Delete Completely. Clicking this option will overwrite the highlighted file.

You can also permanently delete files - or at least make them virtually impossible to recover by prying eyes - with the help of these nice, free "shredders:"

Eraser: http://www.download.com/Eraser/3000-2092_4-10231813.html

Simple File Shredder:
http://www.download.com/Simple-File-Shredder/3000-2092_4-10509929.html

I hope you find this information helpful!

Best wishes.

Submitted by: Miguel K. of Columbus, Ohio

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