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Back in college, I used to work just about every day as a computer cluster consultant. I remember a month after getting promoted to a supervisor, I was in the process of training a new consultant in the library computer cluster. Suddenly, someone tapped me on the shoulder, and when I turned around I was confronted with a frantic graduate student – a 30-something year old man who I believe was Eastern European based on his accent – who was nearly in tears.
“Please need help – my document is all gone and disk stuck!” he said as he frantically pointed to his PC.
Now, right off the bat I could have told you three facts about the guy. One glance at the blue screen of the archaic DOS-based version of Wordperfect told me that – like most of the other graduate students at the time – he had not yet decided to upgrade to the newer, point-and-click style word processing software. For some reason, graduate students had become so accustomed to all of the keyboard hot-keys associated with typing in a DOS-like environment that they all refused to evolve into point-and-click users.
The second fact, gathered from a quick glance at his blank document screen and the sweat on his brow told me that he had not saved his document as he worked. The last fact, based on his thick accent, was that communicating the gravity of his situation wouldn’t be easy. In fact, it was made even worse by his answer to my question when I asked him when he last saved.
“I wrote 30 pages.”
Calculated out at about 600 words a page, that’s 18000 words. Ouch.
Then he pointed at the disk drive. The floppy disk was stuck, and from the marks on the drive he had clearly tried to get it out with something like a paper clip. By the time I had carefully fished the torn and destroyed disk out of the drive, it was clear he’d never recover anything off of it. I asked him what was on it.
I gulped. I asked him if he was serious. He was. I asked him if he’d made any backups. He hadn’t.
Making Backups of Backups
If there is anything I learned during those early years of working with computers (and the people that use them), it was how critical it is to not only save important stuff, but also to save it in different places. I would back up floppy drives to those cool new zip drives as well as the local PC hard drive. Never, ever had a single copy of anything.
Unfortunately, even today, people have not learned that lesson. Whether it’s at work, at home, or talking with friends, I keep hearing stories of people losing hundreds to thousands of files, sometimes they lose data worth actual dollars in time and resources that were used to develop the information.
To drive that lesson home, I wanted to share a collection of stories that I found around the Internet about some recent cases were people suffered that horrible fate – from thousands of files to entire drives worth of data completely lost. These are people where the only remaining option is to start running recovery software and praying, or in other cases paying thousands of dollars to a data recovery firm and hoping there’s something to find.
Not Backing Up Projects
The first example comes from, where a user that only provided a “?” for a user name (out of embarrassment probably), posted:
“I lost all my files from my hard drive? help please? I did a project that took me 3 days and now i lost it, its powerpoint presentation, where can i look for it? its not there where i save it, thank you”
The folks answering immediately dove into suggesting that the person run recovery software, and one person suggested that the person run a search on the computer for *.ppt.
Probably a good idea to do a search, but the odds are pretty good that the person accidentally deleted the file accidentally. Hopefully they simply moved it – but from past experience I’ve seen this scenario far too often – a person literally spends days building a project and doesn’t think even once to save it in more than just one location.
How important can that project really be if you don’t bother to back it up as you work along? When I program at work, I’ve learned the hard lesson in the past of losing several days worth of programming effort with a simple slip of the “save” button – saving over my past work with a bad program. I now back up everything – at each stage of development – in 3 or 4 different places.
Doing Backups Wrong
Then, there’s a scenario of actually trying to do a backup and doing it wrong, losing all of the files on the original drive. That was the case for the person who posted on Tech Support Forum, that after purchasing a brand new Toshiba Laptop and attempting to transfer old files from an external hard drive, inadvertently wiped the files on the hard drive.
Please someone help me…I last week brought a Toshiba Satellite laptop running windows 7, to replace my blue screening Dell vista laptop. On plugged in my sumo external hard drive to copy over some much treasured photos and some of my (work – music/writing.) it said installing driver. it said completed I clicked on the hard drive and found a copy of my documents from the new laptop and nothing else.
While the description of the problem is a little broken, from the sound of it, the person thought they were backing up from one direction, while they were actually backing up in the other direction. At least in this case not all of the original files were deleted, but a majority were.
Thankfully, this would be a case where recovery software could likely help, but why risk it? Take your time when you’re backing up files, especially if you’ve never used the backup software before. Why click “OK” or “YES” on dialog windows before you really know what it’s asking? Take your time and understand each step of the process. It’ll be worth your while.
My Mac Ate My Files
Before you start laughing and pointing your finger at all of the silly Windows people, keep in mind that this affliction also affects Mac users as well. Case in point, a user by the name of Tas over at DaniWeb, who posted that simply shutting down and starting up the Mac wiped out music, photos and even contact lists. Now that’s scary. And no backups? Are you kidding?
I shut down my mac and when I started it up again all the files I had saved, all my music, all my photo’s and numbers and adresses and everything else I have worked on in the last year has just gone. No trace of it. If any of you have any idea how to get it back, I would love to know. Also, all the applications are still there but some of them need to be registered again.
Many users thought that the user had simply booted off the wrong drive, and one IT person piped in that it had happened at her place of work and she recovered files for someone in a root folder named “Previous Systems”.
Unfortunately, more users piped up in the thread where they’d similarly lost years of data. I think the following post was the worst case I’d ever heard of.
“Today, I just lost all my Web-sites (my entire parent-Web folder is gone with all its contents).
Wonderful. Years of work just gone. Popped away in less than a second. I still have the mail server, etc, plus 60GB extra free space, which means the files are totally gone from the harddisk.
No more Mac for me.”
In all fairness, I do think that last poster went a bit overboard stating “No mor Mac for me,” after all the epidemic of data loss is an equal opportunity destroyer – regardless of OS. It comes down to human nature and sheer laziness when it comes to taking proper backups. It’s the, “It’ll never happen to me” mentality.
Do Backups Before Messing Around
Before I ever play around with utilities or install any serious apps on my PC, I take backups. Even more-so if I’m going to be trying out anything to do with the operating system. So, I was shocked to read at post over at TechGuy.org, where one person tested out Windows 8 thinking it was going to somehow back up and save his previous system setup and files.
“I’m in a real mess at the moment, I’ve lost some important word documents after I did a Windows 8 refresh. The documents I need were on my desktop in folders and what’s strange is the folders are still there but the files inside them aren’t. I’ve tried ‘Recuva’ and I’ve got like 3 word documents back but the it says the rest are unrecoverable and have been overwritten. I’ve been trying other programs but not luck so far. I know it’s a long shot but is there any possible way to recover these word documents? It’s work I can’t replicate again and I’m screwed if I can’t get it back.”
He was beat up pretty badly by tech folks telling him what an idiot he’d been, and the poor guy almost left the forum crying. One user informed him:
“If you want to recover the data, stop using the computer, and get ready to write a big check. That’s your only option at this point.”
Ultimately, if you are going to do something like test a new operating system and don’t bother backing up at least your most important files, then you probably deserve to write a big fat check to some data recovery company – at the very least it would be a very difficult lesson to ever forget.
Use Common Sense When Installing Software
The last example I wanted to offer was one that I discovered over at R-TT Forums. It involves a person that installed software, and not only did they not bother doing regular backups of their most important files, but they also decided to go ahead and install that new software directly into the folder where all of those important files are stored. Say what?
Yesterday i installed a program (Sony Vegas) on my computer, i installed it to a specific folder where i keep all my personal files, a folder which contains over 150gbs worth of files and docs. When i installed Sony Vegas to that folder, it installed in a funny way, all the program’s files were spread out across the folder, so i decided uninstall Sony Vegas. When uninstalled, i went to open my folder but could no longer locate it, so i did system restore and the folder was back, but with nothing inside, all the files were gone except for empty folders here and there. Do i have any chance of recovering my files? I desperately need them back, i have had that folder for almost 10 years now, and it is full of memories, video files, documents etc. I just need them back.
Imagine – a folder filled with 10 years of memories and important files. No backups, and then installing software directly into that folder.
Hard lesson – not only should you take backups, but you should also install software as far away as possible from important memories and critical files. Common sense, right?
So now that you’ve learned from everyone else’s mistakes, I bet you’re ready to take your own backups, right? That’s what I thought.
Thankfully, you’re at MakeUseOf, where there are lots of fantastic free options. I like Microsoft SyncToy, while there are others that like FreeFileSync. Choose one and use it. Or go with one of the backup solutions offered by Matt. Have a Mac? James has triple-backup tips. Have a pile of photo memories you can’t afford to lose? Use Saikat’s advice and triple-upload them.
Don’t wait any longer, and don’t think it won’t happen to you. One day it will, and you want to be prepared. Trust me.
Do you take regular backups? What solutions do you use? Have you ever had your own data-loss horror story? We’d love to hear them in the comments section below!
Image Credit: Stressed & Frustrated via Shutterstock, Stressed & Frustrated via ShutterstockSongquan Deng / Shutterstock.com, Adriano Castelli / Shutterstock.com, Apple Sign in NYC via Shutterstock, Windows in Milan via Shutterstock External Hard Drive via Shutterstock