5 min read

The computer dealer’s guide to data recovery

When to tackle a drive yourself, when to turn to the pros, and how to find the right help

As a computer dealer, you’re often considered the definitive authority on all that is computers. Your clients, largely consumers and small businesses, don’t have the time, resources, or desire to solve the vast array of computer problems they may encounter. In fact, many chose to buy a computer from their local computer dealer simply because they want the security of knowing that should a computer problem arise, they can count on their local computer dealer for help. So when a data disaster strikes and suddenly the baby pictures or the e-mails are no longer accessible, be sure you’re prepared to deal with the situation.

Do you need professional data recovery?

If the data is absolutely critical, do nothing but send it to the professionals. More data is lost by well-intentioned recovery attempts than is ever lost from the initial problem. That said, not all data loss situations require the use of a professional data recovery service. If your situation is not that critical and your storage device is still functional, you may be able to recover the data yourself. Knowing how to differentiate which situations call for a professional and which don’t, is the key.

First, it helps to understand that data recovery situations can be divided into two main categories:

DEFECTIVE STORAGE DEVICE: the data is inaccessible because the storage device (typically a hard drive) is no longer functioning properly;
DAMAGED FILE SYSTEM: the storage device is working perfectly but due to corruption or damage to the computer’s file system structures, the data cannot be seen or accessed.

In the first category, the storage device is not working properly. Unless you’re a hard drive expert, there is little you can do. Furthermore, if the drive has begun to crash, there may only be a short window of time before the damage becomes insurmountable. If the data is mission critical, shut if off immediately, do nothing, and start shopping for a professional recovery service.

In the second category, the device is assumed to be working properly, and the data loss is likely the result of damage to the operating system files or to the “index of files”. However, this damage can still be the result of a hard drive misbehaving, so be careful.

If the data is not worth the cost of recovery or is not mission critical, you can try a few things to recover the data yourself.

Many times a user cannot access their data simply because their computer will no longer boot up. Try attaching the inaccessible data drive as a second drive on a good booting computer or install the inaccessible data drive inside an external USB box and access it through a USB port. If the file system is still relatively intact you should be able to open up “My Computer” and gain access to the drive’s data. For Mac users the inaccessible data drive should show up as an icon on your desktop.

If the drive’s data files still can’t be seen, there is one more tactic that can be employed. Running a commercially available data recovery program may recover the files you need, even if you’ve formatted the hard drive, deleted files or re-installed the operating system. Many of these programs can be purchased for less than $100 and offer a free trial period where you get to see the results before you decide to actually purchase the product. Be sure to attach an additional working storage device to the computer for recovering the data to. Data should never be recovered to the original storage device.

How do you choose a reputable data recovery company?

Ten years ago there were only a handful of data recovery companies in Canada. Now there are hundreds, if not thousands, of companies all claiming to be data recovery experts. While most of them are honest, there will always be some bad apples. It’s just too easy for a company to throw up an impressive Web site and start luring in data recovery cases. The data recovery business has begun to stink! The amount of fraudulent and dishonest operators has reached epidemic proportions and the scams are as varied as the artists that perpetuate them.

Be wary, be wise and avoid these well known ploys

One of the worst tactics employed by many so called “data recovery companies” involves charging for evaluations. These opportunists operate by bringing in as many recovery cases as possible by promising ridiculously low pricing and unrealistic recovery times. Once the cases arrive they quickly screen them for the easiest cases, those 15 per cent or so that can be completed with minimal labour and zero parts. These cases are reported as being recoverable and most will be approved for additional recovery fees, while the remaining tougher cases are declared unrecoverable but still invoiced for the evaluation. This is a real disservice to anyone in dire need of their data and, in my opinion, borders on criminal. A competent data recovery company should not need to charge for evaluations or quotes!

Some “data recovery companies” will use the same scheme as just mentioned, but with a twist: evaluations are free but there is a “recovery attempt fee”. You got it; they only seem to recover the simpler cases, while the tougher stuff is declared unsuccessful. Even an honest company using this pricing scheme will be tempted to throw in the towel a lot sooner than a company that must be successful to get paid. A reputable data recovery company should not charge you for attempting to recover your data!

Other companies may charge for parts, donor drives, and even the clean room time used in the recovery attempt regardless of the outcome. In an honest world this would be fine, but the unscrupulous often use this opportunity to forget the recovery attempt and just bill for the imaginary resources used during the imaginary recovery. A reputable data recovery company should not charge you a dime unless they successfully recover the data you need!

Many data recovery companies “dress up” real well on the web, with impressive words, high tech looking labs, incredible clean rooms and impressive equipment, but words and pictures are cheap, so ensure they have an actual physical recovery lab where they say they do. Many of the unscrupulous operate through mail forwarding and office facade services. If possible visit the facility, especially if you’re looking for an ongoing relationship.

Refrain from the temptation to use the lowest cost service. You really do get what you pay for. Providing a competent and first class data recovery service demands an investment in high end people, expensive equipment and plenty of parts. Internal work on crashed hard drives can quickly consume two or three parts drives before the data is salvaged and parts suppliers love to charge recovery companies huge premiums for their non-current hard drives. It’s expensive for a good recovery company to just try and recover your data. Reputable and honest recovery companies do not try and mislead people with “too low to be true” recovery pricing.

Before committing to a data recovery provider search the web with the “company name” and some additional words like “complaints” or “scams”. If the company has some questionable business practices you should be able to find out. Additionally, search for your prospective recovery company’s address on the web as many of the bad players operate under multiple company names and websites. One would be inclined to conclude that such companies use multiple aliases in an effort to deceive a victim for a second time.

Even with the best backup policies, self healing RAID arrays, and the reliability of SSD or Solid State Drives, data will be lost. As long as humans continue to interact with computers, mistakes will be made, accidents will happen, and buttons will be pushed that cause catastrophic data loss. Data loss can be extremely stressful and panicked clients will need to rely on you more than ever. Selecting a reputable data recovery service provider may be the most important thing you can do for your clients, so choose wisely.

David Foster is the general manager of Memofix Data Recovery Services. Prior to joining Memofix, David was the vice-president of lab operations at Seagate Recovery Services. He has been intimately involved in the data recovery business for 20 years.