How To Safely Recover and Delete Your Files

Learn how to recover your accidentally deleted files and how to digitally shred files that you want to permanently delete

Eric Escobar
5-minute read
Episode #9

If you haven’t yet read to my episode on backing up your computer, stop reading this and check it out now. Go ahead, I’ll wait… Okay now that you’ve read it, please go to your computer and back everything up! I’ve had to recover so many deleted documents and hard drives this week that I can’t bear to tell another person that everything they’ve worked on for the past year is lost. And what’s worse, many of these heartbreaking stories of file loss involve term projects, papers, and even the occasional doctoral thesis.

Many of us know firsthand how terrible it is to accidentally delete a file that we’ve put months of time and effort into. So in today’s episode I’m going to turn you into a file recovery expert, but first let me give you a little bit of background..

What Happens When you Delete a File?

What happens exactly when you delete a file? Well if you’re using  a standard operating system the answer is not a whole lot—not even after you’ve emptied the recycle bin! To be quite honest, files you thought were deleted from your hard drive can linger on it for quite a while after you click “delete.”

Let me explain. Pretend you are in the canned food section of a grocery store. Now, imagine that each can is a different file on your computer. When you delete a file, it’s like taking the wrapping off the can. The can and the food inside it is still there, but instead of a colorful label all you have is a plain tin can. This plain can would probably go unnoticed until the store clerk came to restock the shelves. And when he did come by, he would take the can off the shelf to make room for another can, one with a colorful label on it.

This is pretty much what happens on a computer when you delete a file from the recycle bin or trash. The file will still be on your hard drive, it will just have the label taken off, which tells the computer that it’s okay to erase it when space is needed.

Most of the time, this is actually a pretty great thing because if you need to recover these deleted files (or label-less cans), all you’ll need is a free piece of software called Recuva. It will scan your hard drive for files that have been deleted and then give you the option to recover whatever is still available.

Timing is Everything!

While it is possible to recover most files within a day or so, it’s important that you understand another concept: When you delete a file, you are basically telling the computer that it’s okay to use that space on your hard drive for something else. So if you don’t act quickly to recover the file you accidentally deleted, that next Tech Talker podcast you download might take the place of your thesis! That’s why it’s a good idea to do a recovery as soon as you discover that a file you need was trashed and not download or create anything else, just in case.

So if you have any nefarious files on your computer, remember: Files aren’t deleted the moment you empty that recycle bin. And when the men in suits come knocking on your door, you know your efforts to delete every file from your computer are useless!

[[AdMiddle]Or, more realistically, say you want to donate your computer to charity or to that kid down the block? This is the reason that most experts advise that you remove the hard drive before donating your machine. Some people can take advantage of the way computers delete files and will try and pull up your deleted information from these files for potential identity theft or a whole host of other unpleasant things.

How to Really Delete a Computer File

Now I’m going to flip the coin and tell you how to delete a file so that there is virtually no way it can be recovered *insert evil cackle*.

Luckily, this is extremely easy. The program I use is called AxCrypt. This free program does a number of useful things, but what I love most is its file shredding feature. Instead of deleting a file the way I described before, this method is very effective in that it replaces your file with a bunch of jumbled 1’s and 0’s on the hard drive. This renders software such as Recuva pretty much useless at recovering that file anytime in the future.

Say you want to donate your computer to charity but don’t want to bother with taking out your hard drive altogether. There is another free program called KillDisk that will wipe your entire hard drive and replace it with random 1’s and 0’s. This process may take your computer a few hours to complete but it should keep your computer pretty safe if it gets into the wrong hands.

When it comes to your information and data, always error on the side of caution. These programs allow you to delete many files securely so that they are not easily recovered and for your average computer user, this is all you need to keep yourself safe. But large private companies and government agencies that store very sensitive files need a bit more assurance that their files don’t get into the wrong hands. So they tend to caution on the side that means smashing a hard drive to bits.

To sum up, here are your 3 Quick and Dirty Tips for recovering your files:

  1. Back up your computer

  2. Use Recuva to recover the files as soon as possible

  3. Don’t download or create files until you perform the recovery as they might overwrite your deleted file

And now, to flip the coin, here are 3 Quick and Dirty Tips for making sure your deleted files stay deleted:

  1. Use a program like Axcrypt to digitally shred your files

  2. Before donating a computer, use KillDisk to wipe the hard drive or take it out altogether

  3. Always error on the side of caution if you are unsure

Have a question about anything in this episode? Or a suggestion for a future podcast? Send me an email at techtalker@quickanddirtytips.com or post it on the Tech Talker Facebook wall. And as always check the show notes to see a list of the programs I’ve mentioned in today’s episode.

Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Eric Escobar

Tech Talker demystifies technology and cutting edge devices so that even the most tech illiterate can understand what's going on with their computer or gadget — and what to do when something goes wrong.