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Take a deep breath. Don’t panic. Whether you accidentally hit the delete button or booted up to the sound of grinding metal, all is not lost. And you’re not alone. It doesn’t matter if you’re a tech-savvy four-lawyer shop or just a guy with a laptop at the corner Starbucks, an army of services and products await to help you recover your lost data. The easiest and cheapest way to recover files made inaccessible through human error or software problems is with a data recovery program. These programs are available at any major computer store or over the Internet as downloads. Basic data recovery programs address issues like deleted files, cross-linked files and lost clusters, says Stuart Hanley, director of operations at Minnesota-based Ontrack Data International, the company that restored Kuwait’s lost passport file system during the Gulf War. “Sometimes your hard drive becomes scrambled and your systems can’t find where to look for the data,” says Hanley. “This software reconstructs the paths to the data.” Even if your computer won’t boot up, Hanley says there are programs that can self-boot and run at a low level to analyze the disk drive. To ensure the most complete recovery, look for a program that runs without writing to the drive, says Hanley. This means that the program won’t take over the parts of your drive space where your data is saved. Now for the caveat: If you were putting the finishing touches on a death penalty appeal when your computer went on the fritz, you may want to forgo the shareware and hand your computer over to an expert data recovery service. Although this route will probably be more expensive, it is the surest way to ensure the most complete recovery of mission-critical data. PHYSICAL DAMAGE A drive is a mechanical device, so it is not unusual that it would give out, says Scott Gaidano, president of Drive Savers, a California-based company. And you don’t need to be a techie or look into the drive to know something is wrong. “If it’s squealing like a stuck pig, you have a good idea that it’s a mechanical problem,” Gaidano says. Also, your computer won’t sound like its normal self: When you boot up your machine, you won’t hear the usual clicking noises or the disks spinning. In this situation, turn the computer off immediately. Don’t call in your assistant to verify the grinding sounds or reboot to convince yourself something’s wrong. Every second that electricity fuels your broken drive, Gaidano says the heads are scratching data off the platters — data you won’t be able to get back at any price. Even if your computer doesn’t sound like it’s preparing for take off, you could still have a problem with the drive. If your Mac is mute, Hanley recommends running a diagnostic utility to determine the cause of the problem. If your drive is indeed damaged, software can’t save you. It’s time to call in the experts to make repairs. Don’t be tempted to poke around the rotary positioner assemblies or the voice coil motors yourself. Even if you have the know-how to fix a broken part, opening the drive on your office floor will almost certainly void the warranty and may cause further damage by letting dust and other contaminants into a once pure environment. An expert data repair service will have a clean room — and many have agreements with major computer manufacturers so the warranty remains effective despite the repair. Depending on how much you have to spend, you can personally bring your drive to a recovery service, send it in or bring the engineers out for a personal consultation. Once inside your drive, engineers employ a variety of tricks to recover data, including physical repair, running proprietary software programs, or removing the platters and putting them into a machine with a special read head that can pick up data on warped surfaces. Look for a company that can return the lost data in the same manner it was stored before the incident. Many recovery services can return your files to you over a high-speed Internet connection in addition to saving it on a CD. If you choose to receive your data over the Internet, make sure your data recovery service can protect it through encryption, a password, firewalls or a timed window of retrieval time. Ontrack also offers a data recovery via modem connection for such nonhardware problems as operating system issues and data corruption. Its engineers dial into your system, perform a diagnostic and recover data remotely. When you reboot, says Hanley, the system looks like nothing ever happened. And when your heart stops pounding, you may forget anything ever happened, too.

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