I think I've lost my data and I don't know what to do...

There are a lot of reasons a computer can lose data. Some are more catastrophic than others. If the hard disk in the computer is making a clicking, grinding, or scraping sound, then it’s time to turn off the computer, remove the hard disk, and sent it to a data recovery house — we recommend Burgess Consulting, of course. There is one thing you can do to determine if the sound is due to a failed hard disk. Immediately turn off the computer. Let the hard disk stabilize for a few minutes and open up the computer. Then either remove the hard disk or unplug the power from it. Then turn the computer back on. If it’s still screeching (and there’s no power to the hard disk), the problem is not the hard disk. You’re in luck! Your data may still be safe and you should have your computer diagnosed.

If the hard disk is not producing these sounds, you may still have a chance to get your data back. First, turn off the computer and wait five minutes for everything to stabilize. Once everything is turned back on, check files and applications for damage. If you can get your computer to boot, be sure to back up your important files right away. Be alert for errors indicating deeper problems.

If the computer won’t boot normally, try booting into Safe Mode (on Windows or Mac OS X), or with Extensions disabled (on an old Macintosh) and then see if the files are accessible. If they are, you may be able to back up important documents to a floppy disk or an attached external hard disk.

Here’s how you boot into Windows Safe Mode: When you power on your computer, press and hold the “F8” key right when you see the text (not the colorful banner), “Starting Windows (your version)”. It needs to be pressed at just the right time, so you may need to try it several times, or press the key repeatedly. A text screen should come up that allows you several modes for starting. You want Safe Mode. Many systems have a corporate banner that hides the “Starting Windows… ” text. Usually pressing the “Esc” key before the banner comes up will cause it to go away. Then press the F8 key.

Here’s how you boot a Macintosh into Safe Mode (OS X) or with the Extensions off (OS 9 and earlier): Simply hold the Shift key when you start the Mac. This should cause OS X to boot into Safe Mode, where it will want to run First Aid. This causes OS 9 to boot with Extensions off.

If you cannot boot into safe mode, try booting from a floppy diskette, CD, or external hard disk: Be Careful!!! Many systems come with a System Restore CD that will likely erase all of your data! Many times, a client has called after their computer vendor had them do this. Be careful! Even if someone tells you to do it, be aware that you may be erasing your data. Read all messages carefully. You want only to boot the system so you can back up files – you do not want to do anything that will write data or do any partition or format operations.

How do I boot from a CD or floppy?

Windows PCs: Most PCs have a button to press that will bring up boot options, or boot order. It varies from computer to computer, but on many newer PCs, it is the “F1” or “F2” key. It is sometimes the “Esc” or “Del” key. Check with your manufacturer, if possible, or just experiment.

Mac: Holding the “C” key at startup should force a boot from the CD drive. Holding “T” at start up should force a boot from an external drive (in OS X).

If you cannot boot from a floppy or CD, then try putting the drive into another system. Take the drive out of the computer, and put it in as a secondary drive in another system. You will need to change jumper settings, and if it’s a laptop drive, you will need to get an adapter to plug it into a desktop computer. But you may be able to bring the drive up as a secondary drive in another system and copy your files off, or back them up. Many computer stores sell external USB or FireWire enclosures that you can put the hard disk into, then hook up to the computer externally.

In any case, take care to listen for any unusual sounds. If the drive begins to click or screech, you should shut it off immediately and call us for a quote to recover your data.

There are disk repair utilities, first aid, and data recovery software.

If the drive is physically damaged, or making unusual sounds, it should be turned off immediately and sent in for recovery. In such a circumstance, running any software at all is likely to damage your data, possibly beyond recoverability. Call for data recovery service.

If the file structure is damaged, disk repair software can damage the files beyond recoverability. Great caution must be taken when running a disk repair utility that writes anything to the hard disk — and most of them do. If you do run a “do it yourself” utility, keep the following precautions in mind:

  • Read the documentation. It’s a pain, but it might save you from a painful mistake.
  • Save an “undo” file. Many repair utilities allow the user to save a file that will allow changes to be undone. If the utility does give you this option, then do it, by all means. Save the file to a different drive than the one on which you are working. If the software needs to be run several times, rename the previous undo file to something like, “1st try,” “2nd try,” etc. and save a separate undo file. If the repairs need to be undone, then undo them one at a time, using the newest undo file first, and the oldest one last.
  • Don’t allow the software to make changes to “FAT,” “FAT tables,” “MBR,” or “MFT.” Don’t let it make changes to anything that sounds like parts of a tree, such as “leaves,” “trees,” or “b-trees.” Don’t let it make changes to anything with “node” in it. These kinds of repairs can damage your file structure beyond recoverability.
  • Don’t recover any data to the damaged drive — always recover it to another drive or device. Any data you recover to the source drive will overwrite data already on it, and therefore make some data unrecoverable.
  • Don’t assume that the data recovery software has successfully recovered your files, even if it says it has. All recovery software recovers some corrupt files. In some cases, all of the recovered files can be corrupt. Check your data to make sure it’s intact.
  • Don’t reformat your hard disk. If you want to get your files back, don’t let anything or anyone format your hard disk. While we have had success on many occasions recovering data from formatted hard disks, it always makes things more difficult.

If you can get your system up and running again with a copy of your files intact, then congratulations! Just remember that it’s important not to take chances with your valuable data. When in doubt, send the drive in to Burgess Consulting.

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