Top 10 DIY data recovery mistakes

DIY Data Recovery – The top 10 data recovery mistakes

Data Recovery SOS

If your device fails or you suffer data loss, it can be really tempting to try some form of Data Recovery yourself. It might be down to the cost, having some experience in IT or perhaps a web search for data recovery returned a DIY YouTube video.

This article examines some of the data recovery DIY disasters than we see on a regular basis and explains why you may be at risk of losing even more data or suffering permanent data loss.

We would strongly advise not to attempt a home DIY data recovery. Speak to a data recovery specialist and explain your situation, they will be able to give you an initial idea of timescales and prices. Data recovery service providers are now offering reasonable fixed price structures and will have the tools and experience to give you a much greater chance of getting your data back.

Even many IT shops and service centres don’t always have the necessary skills or equipment to perform successful data recoveries. You may be lucky, but it is worth checking out specialist data recovery service providers, as getting your data back is their business and single focus. We have bailed out many IT companies who have attempted and failed to recover the data, for some unfortunately it was too late, they had done more damage than good.

Whist this is a list of top ten mistakes, any DIY data recovery attempt could lead to bigger problems if you don’t know what you are doing.

Top 10 data recovery mistakes

We regularly encounter all of the following mistakes.

1) Taking the Hard Drive/USB stick to a friend who works in IT

We are often told “My friend who works in IT had a look at it for me”. It’s great that they want to help you out, but unless they work specifically in the data recovery industry, they could easily make the problem worse. Continued use of any device after data loss or device failure has occurred could lead to further data loss or permanent device failure. This is especially the case with hard drives, but is still very applicable to USD devices, memory cards and mobile phones.

Attempting a data recovery without the proper tools, knowledge or skills is asking for trouble. Your friend may be an expert in a specific area of IT, but this knowledge may not be directly applicable to data recovery.

2) Plugging a Hard Drive back in that is making a noise or clicking

As soon as a hard drive begins to make a noise or starts clicking, stop using it immediately and speak to a data recovery professional. A hard drive making any kind of unusual noises can indicate a serious issue and continued use is only likely to make the situation worse.

We know that it’s tempting to plug it back in to try to get at your data, but if there is physical damage to the disk surfaces or head assembly the drive could degrade rapidly, which could even result in a head crash. To learn more about this we have two articles you might find informative, "Why is my hard drive making a clicking noise?" and "Anatomy of a hard drive". These explain the inner workings of a Hard Drive and why they sometimes they fail.

A noisy hard drive is not always the sign of physical damage, but it is really not worth taking the risk. So keep the device switched off.

3) Running defrag on your hard drive

Running defrag on a failing hard drive is a very bad idea for a number of reasons. It is a fairly intensive process involving lots or read/write activity and as previously mentioned this could easily cause further damage to the disk surfaces if there is already damage. If the data loss is down to a logical fault or data deletion, then the defrag process could actually end up permanently writing over data that you wish to recovery.

If your operating system or programs are running slowly or you are having problems accessing data, this could be early signs of an underlying problem. Don’t run defrag to try to speed things up, it’s probably best to get it checked out.

4) Watching data recovery videos on YouTube

We have received numerous recoveries where customers have admitted to trying a DIY recovery based on watching a YouTube video, often resulting in making the problem worse. In some cases it has made the data completely unrecoverable.

An important part of the data recovery process to ensure the best possible recovery, is a correct diagnosis of the fault. This diagnosis needs to be made by an experienced data recovery engineer using appropriate methods and in a clean air controlled environment, prior to attempting any engineering.

These videos may be informative and they may even be made by an experienced data recovery engineer, but each device should be treated on a case by case basis. There is no telling what the real cause of a fault is until it is properly investigated. There may also be multiple faults on the device.

5) Removing the lid of a hard drive and attempting the recovery yourself

This is one of the worse things you could do in terms of a DIY data recovery. Just taking a look inside the drive assembly without even attempting a recovery could seriously compromise the chances of a good outcome.

The read/write heads glide on a cushion of air just 3-6 nanometres above the surface of the disk as it spins. If a particle of dust or debris on the disk surface came into contact with the read/write heads this could be enough to cause physical damage to the surface, making data unreadable. It could also cause damage to the read/write heads themselves.

Hard drives are manufactured in a clean filtered air environment ensuring that no dust or other particles enter the hard drive assembly. If the lid is removed then there is a risk from airborne particles landing on the disk surface. Data recovery labs have filtered air facilities enabled inspection and repair in a controlled environment.

On numerous occasions we have seen finger prints on the disk surface, which will also cause a huge amount of damage if the drive is then switched on.

6) Downloading recovery software to a drive they are trying to recover from

As we mentioned earlier, the main thing you need to do to prevent further or permanent data loss is to stop using the device immediately and turn it off. Continued use like downloading and installing data recovery software could exacerbate any physical damage to the device and prevent a successful data recovery.

Free data recovery software is a bit of a minefield in terms of what it can provide and how secure it is. Read our article "Data Recovery software - what you need to know" for more information.

7) Running recovery software to the same drive, overwriting the data you need.

As mentioned above, just downloading the data recovery software onto the drive could cause you problems. Aside from continued use of a potentially damaged device, you could also write over data that you are trying to recover when installing this software.

Running the data recovery software for any length of time could again exacerbate physical damage. Even if you do start to recover data, this may be overwriting other deleted data that you wish to save.

8) Using a drive/camera/phone after data has been deleted by mistake.

Even with microchip based storage devices, you should stop using them immediately on discovering that you have deleted files by mistake. This is true for any type of device, however with chip based memory, especially SSDs (Solid State Drives), with continued use there is a high possibility of overwriting files that may otherwise be recoverable.

Sometimes memory cards and USD devices show that there is no data present, so people have a tendency to carry on using the device. However there is still a possibility that data is present and available for recovery by a data recovery specialist.

For more information on deleted files see our article "The lowdown on deleted files and photos".

9) Picking companies that appear at the top of google without doing enough research before sending a drive for recovery.

As with any type of industry, some companies are better than others. Price, turnaround times and customer service levels vary greatly in the data recovery industry. Choosing the right company could have a big impact on the cost and success of your data recovery.

Do some research and read reviews carefully. Appearing at the top of Google doesn’t necessarily make a great company, it may just mean they have paid for advertising. Reviews and ratings can be manipulated, so look at Facebook and Google reviews, where it is harder for people to generate fake accounts.

Make sure you are aware of all potential costs so they don’t keep inflating throughout the process. Many companies are offering a fixed price structure now, so you know where you stand.

We have an article, "Choosing a data recovery company", which is a detailed guide to things you should look out for.

10) Being liberal with the truth as to what has happened to a drive or what has been previously attempted

It’s really important for you to be upfront about the exact nature of how the data loss occurred and if any previous attempts have been made to recover the data. Withholding information could have an impact on the success of your data recovery.

Any information about how the fault or data loss occurred may help with our initial assessment of the device and may help save time with the recovery process.

If a previous recovery has been attempted, a hard drive lid opened or any other work done on it, it’s critical to let your recovery specialist know upfront. It’s also worth letting them know if you continued to use the device after the data loss or fault occurred.

Holding back any of this information can slow down the process and even in some cases affect the outcome of the data recovery.

We’re here to help and the more we know the better.


The fairly obvious conclusion to this is… don’t Do It Yourself. It could cost you more money, more stress and even your data.

It is tempting to have a go yourself, but if you want the best chance of getting your data back safely, speak to a data recovery professional.

  • Most importantly, turn your device off immediately and do not use it again.
  • Do not try to recover your data using downloaded software or by physically working on the device.
  • Never remove the lid of a hard drive.
  • Research potential data recovery service providers.
  • Provide as much information as you can.