Data Loss from a USB Flash Drive: Do You Know How to Set Things Right?

Illustration for article titled Data Loss from a USB Flash Drive: Do You Know How to Set Things Right?em/em

A thumb drive, USB stick, jump drive, flash drive, data stick, pen drive, memory unit, key chain drive, pocket drive, finger stick... It looks like this guy has a sort of an identity crisis. But no matter how you call it (depending on your preferences and the degree of nonsense you deem acceptable), the most common purpose of the USB flash drive is providing an easy and fast way to transfer files between computers. This small ultra-portable storage device offers enough space to store gigs of data, and being virtually indestructible, it also comes in handy for backing up important files from the hard disk and keeping them in a safe location. Owing to its compact size, ever-increasing storage capacity and versatility, it has become a real asset for many computer users, who are used to carrying their flash drives around wherever they go. However, apart from being accidentally left behind in a variety of places, flushed down a toilet, eaten by your dog or ending up in a trash bin or laundry, just like any other form of digital storage, USB flash drives are subject to a bunch of issues that often result in the loss of important data.


Accidentally deleted files

The convenience and speed of USB flash drives is way beyond comparison: your files can be copied, moved or erased in a matter of seconds. But the trouble starts when you realize that the file/folder you’ve just personally destroyed contains the results of your hard work or is exactly the one you need alive ASAP. Stop scolding yourself, things just happen sometimes, especially since you can easily make up for this mistake. You probably know that, as a rule, files you delete from a USB flash drive skip the Recycle Bin, but the good news is that they cannot just vanish right away: they remain hidden on the drive until the file system overwrites them with something else. You can take advantage of this fact and retrieve them using a piece of data recovery software. Still, there is one thing for you to keep in mind: saving anything to this drive, copying/moving files or, heaven forbid, reformatting it may result in permanent data loss.


Accidental formatting

It is easy enough to get confused in those (E:)s, (G:)s, (F:)s and other members of the alphabet, and thus select the wrong drive and format it due to simple carelessness or impatience. Moreover, when you plug the drive in, your operating system may decide that you need to reformat it right now and plant this idea in your mind using one of its pop-up messages, which may say that the drive does not contain a recognized file system, is in RAW format, not formatted, simply “not ready” (whatever that means) and so on. This can happen owing to various reasons, and there are even chances that the drive will work normally when plugged in another PC or booted from another operating system, so you shouldn’t immediately format your drive when it asks to be formatted. But even if you’ve already let that happen, you may still get your files back: stop using this drive immediately and run a data recovery utility to retrieve the lost data. The recovered files shouldn’t be saved to the same drive to prevent overwriting. Chances for successful data recovery largely depend on the file systems applied: for example, they are quite high in case an NTFS drive was reformatted with NTFS, while the data on a FAT drive reformatted with FAT has much worse chances to be recovered.

Illustration for article titled Data Loss from a USB Flash Drive: Do You Know How to Set Things Right?em/em

Virus attack

In view of their incredible portability, USB flash drives are widely used for shuttling files between computers and sharing information with different people. Moreover, most of them have this awesome plug-and-play feature. Sure thing, they make our life a whole lot easier, but can you think of a better magnet for viruses? You never know which computer might be inhabited by some sneaky bastards that are eager to jump to your flash drive and wreak havoc with your data. Sometimes it happens that some file/folders or even the whole drive becomes inaccessible. Fortunately, even in this case, you can recover your files:

  • connect the drive to a PC that is protected with a good antivirus system (just in order to prevent the virus from finding a new home). Don’t try to format or fix it, and avoid saving any new data to prevent overwriting the lost files;
  • scan the drive with a data recovery tool that operates in a safe read-only mode and won’t attempt to do any risky repairs to the corrupted data;
  • recover all the files you need and save them to another drive;
  • scan the infected drive by a trusted antivirus and fix all the virus threats. Still and all, prevention is much better than cure, and several easy steps can at least partially help you avoid such situations in the future:
  • disable the auto-run feature of your drive which helps you quickly access its files, as when the USB device is connected to an infected PC, it makes it much easier for malware to penetrate the drive and damage your data;
  • some USB flash drives have a special write protection switch, enabling which you can prevent the contents of your drive from being modified. If it is missing on your drive, you can do the same by downloading a special utility;
  • scan your USB flash drive with an antivirus on a regular basis.

Data corruption

Let’s be honest, when in a rush, most of us just automatically pull out our USB flash drives from the computer, without bothering to click on that “remove safely” icon. “Nah, what could possibly happen? I’ve done so like a million times!” However, removing the device when it is still in use (reading or writing) is likely to result in a logical file system damage, which is one of the most common reasons for data loss from a USB flash drive. If this happened to your drive, don’t format it, even if a prompt says it needs formatting, and don’t use any utilities to fix this, as they can contribute to data corruption and thus significantly decrease your chances of a successful data recovery. Stop using this drive and scan it with reliable data recovery software, saving the restored files to some other drive. And for the future, make sure you never unplug your drive while it is reading or writing, as this can corrupt some files or even the whole file system.


Over and above that, the older your flash drive gets, the less you should trust it with your important data. Depending on the manufacturer and memory technology applied, the average life expectancy of a USB flash drive varies between 10,000 to 100,000 write/erase cycles. When this limit is being reached, the drive starts having problems with retaining data, which generally leads to data loss or corruption. Besides, various defragmentation utilities which are used to improve the performance of a traditional hard disk drive, are simply useless in a case of a USB flash drive and just speed up the process of its degradation. Moreover, multiple insertions and extractions also affect the longevity of your drive. Consequently, you probably should avoid using it for frequently updated files and once in a while, you should replace your old good USB flash drive with a new one: the common warning signs include disappearing files, files that fail to open properly, various error messages or the drive itself may fail to show up.

Illustration for article titled Data Loss from a USB Flash Drive: Do You Know How to Set Things Right?em/em

Physical damage

USB flash drives are really small in comparison to other storage media, which makes the poor things frequently suffer from our negligence and mishandling. Excessive heat, humidity, water, pressure and other kinds of physical damage may affect the internal components of the device and make it lose all of its data just in the blink of an eye. Provided this has happened, you should in no way attempt to use the damaged drive or repair it yourself: this may make the lost data completely unrecoverable. Contact a reputable data recovery service provider for further instructions since with professional help at least some files can still be restored. And don’t forget that storing flash drives in proper conditions will keep them functioning much longer.


Having no moving parts, USB flash drives are generally more reliable than other types of storage media, but that doesn’t make them completely resistant to data loss. Fortunately, in 98% of cases you can still get your files back, but knowing what the right things to do are in each of the data loss scenarios is essential for successful data recovery.

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