How to Shop for Data Recovery

Updated December 30, 2021

Days before it is due, the article that you have been researching, writing and editing for months is suddenly buried within a clicking hard drive and a laptop computer that shows only a blue screen. The most likely cause for a problem like this is that your device is not recognized.

Ready or not, your search for data recovery has begun. Many people have heard data recovery is possible, but never before had the occasion to shop for the service. Statistics predict your search will be relatively intense and short, you’ll likely rely on an online search engine, and you’re not guaranteed to make a good choice.

Whether you will ever get your work back, how much you will pay and how long it will take all hang in the balance.

We handle thousands of data recovery cases every year at Gillware, and we listen to our clients’ stories and their experiences finding a data recovery lab.

No matter where you end up, here are some things we think are important to consider when performing your search for data recovery.

Social Media Can Help You Select a Lab 

There is a wealth of information about most companies available to you on social media.  You can see how big the operation is and see the types of people who work at labs on LinkedIn.  You can see if they have any third party recommendations on Google and Facebook.  If a lab doesn’t have a positive presence in social media that is a red flag.  If a lab doesn’t have multiple engineers with computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering degrees, this is also a red flag.  How could you claim to be an expert in repairing highly complicated mechanical/electrical devices without these types of engineers?  The hard truth is anyone can throw up a website and claim they have been doing data recovery for 20 years.  But social media can give you valuable insight into their real capabilities.

Is there a large diagnostic or evaluation fee?

It is true that data recovery labs often must do a significant amount of work to understand how a hard drive has failed and what will be necessary to recover the data. But top level data recovery labs typically accept this cost and rely on high success rates for income. A free evaluation allows for clear expectations and a willingness to allow customers to make an informed decision without penalty. The dark side of large diagnostic or evaluation fees is that it allows black-hat practices, especially among businesses that have little to no competence in data recovery. These shops for example can bring drives in through a slick web site or polished marketing, decline cases or fail to recover data, and charge an empty “evaluation fee,” which serves as their main source of revenue. A shop can also give very high price quotes to the cases it does not want to take on, and still pocket the evaluation fee. It is a good rule of thumb that if a lab is demanding more than $150 before you’ve actually seen a listing of recovered data, you should thank them for their time and request your gear back.

Why Shop Local if You Don’t Live Near a Data Recovery Lab?

There are only a few top data recovery labs in the country. If you don’t happen to live in Eden Prairie, Minn., Novato, Calif., or Madison, Wis., the odds are somewhat low that you have a top notch data recovery lab nearby.  Local businesses offering data recovery often will send your drive to a lab elsewhere in the country, especially if it’s a difficult case. That’s actually good in a way because it will get your drive where it belongs – the bad news is that the local shop might first damage something before they recognize the need to send it to a top lab, or they might resell you the lab’s work, charging you more than if you’d sent the drive to the lab yourself. When shopping for data recovery, “buying local” is usually an illusion, and the truth is that drives ship easily to the places equipped to handle the work.

Are You Letting the Local Repair Shop Go Too Far?

When a computer stops working due to a failed hard drive, a common first approach is to go to a computer repair shop or IT professional. That makes sense if your case simply requires data recovery software to extract your files. They may have experience and the tools to make the effort.  If they fail, their staff should steer you to a data recovery lab. The risk is that they will keep trying things after their expertise has been exhausted. If you opt to take your case to a local IT provider, let them know how critical your data is and let them know you don’t want anything experimental attempted.  If they don’t have a cleanroom they should not be opening the drives, and they should not throw any of your original equipment (especially printed circuitry or external enclosures) away.   Accept no uncertain action unless you are comfortable losing the data.

Do You Know in Advance the Cost of a Successful Recovery? 

Once a lab has the ability to evaluate your storage device in its facility, it should be able to tell you what it will cost once your data recovery is complete. Even if a flash drive is not detected it’s still entirely possible that your data still exists.

Why Paying per Gigabyte of Recovered Data Doesn’t Add Up

To recover data from a troubled hard drive, you have to correct or repair any physical or electrical damage, address any trouble in the firmware or file system, and solve any other issues that prevent the data from being read. Once these hurdles are crossed and an image of the drive can be taken, the hard work is typically over and it did not depend on how much data was actually recorded to the platters of the hard drive. What mattered was the complexity of the drive itself, how it was formatted and what caused it to fail. Breaking through these barriers is a bit like breaking open a safe: once it’s open, it’s open – the contents of the safe only determine how large of a bag you need to transfer the contents, not how difficult it was to gain access to them. So pricing per gigabyte of recovered data is driven by marketing considerations, rather than accounting for actual recovery costs.  The per gigabyte price may ultimately be fair, it may an attempt to capture more consumer surplus, or it may be a rough attempt at having clients pay a discounted rate if, say, only 50 percent of the data from a drive is recovered. But beware that last tactic – not all data is equally valuable. You are all but certain to have files that are important to you and many that are not. You are better off being sure you are getting back what you want and paying a price that accurately reflects the effort to recover those files.

Beware DIY Tips When Your Drive Isn’t Detected by the BIOS

Some of the crazy tactics you may read about online had merit at one time, or with a particular hard drive series, and others happily coincided with an intermittently functional hard drive’s sputtering ability to work on occasion. But taking a hard drive apart, tapping it with a hammer, shaking it, putting it in a freezer/oven or swapping the components without understanding are cave-man tactics that will likely permanently lower the odds of a professional staff ultimately assisting you. Before experimenting, always ask whether you can accept the permanent loss of the data you can’t currently access. DIY efforts in these situations are likely to fail and could easily double the cost of a professional recovery, if not make it impossible due to platter damage.

Time May Be on Your Side

If cost is the primary reason you are tempted to behave like a caveman, or choose a “cheap” lab to make the effort, consider this:  As long as you keep the drive in a safe, dry place your odds of recovering the data years from now won’t change. When you are in a better financial position you can then pick a lab that makes you feel comfortable.  If the data is not time-sensitive, don’t rush into any decision based on your current financial standing.

Be Able to Review Your Data Before You Pay

If you are told that 98 percent of your data was recovered or that over 500 GB of data has been recovered, that might sound good.  But it’s no guarantee that the data you care about most is there. You should be able to know with absolute certainty whether or not you will be getting back, say, your most recent QuickBooks files or the photo of your one-year-old eating her first piece of birthday cake.

Take Your Time, do Your Research, Speak to Multiple Labs, Listen to Your Gut

This is your critical data that may have taken months or years to create.   Don’t allow anxiety or panic to force your hand into shipping this to a company you haven’t researched.  If your instincts are telling you the lab you are speaking with doesn’t sound like they know what they are doing, they probably don’t.