Are you just days, weeks or hours away from losing your precious photos and documents without realizing it? Jonathan Parkyn examines the 12 biggest threats to your files and explains how to keep your data protected
Never before have we entrusted so many of our most cherished possessions to the technology we use. Every PC, laptop, tablet or phone we own holds hundreds – often thousands – of precious files: important documents we’ve written or received, decades of digital photos and home movies, not to mention emails, friends’ and family members’ addresses, entire music collections, financial reports and much more besides. Many of these are hard or impossible to replace- and all of them could be wiped out in the blink of an eye.
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- What the biggest threats to your most valued documents and photos are
- How to prevent hard-drive failure, data corruption, malware attack and more
- Stop botched OS upgrades or ransomware wiping out your files
- The best way to back up your files so they’re protected
Yes, you can back up your files, but even your backup is potentially vulnerable. If you’re not actively protecting your files against the manifold threats that could erase, steal, infect or corrupt them, then you’re taking a massive gamble. And if you think we’re exaggerating the risks, then think again. We’re talking about very real dangers that can affect arty device at any time, such as hard-drive breakdowns, as well as more recent hazards, like ransomware attacks that can suddenly lock you out of your own files.
Thankfully, there are ways to protect your treasured files. In this feature, we’ll explain all the threats you need to watch out for and show you how to prepare in case the worst happens. On top of that, we’ve dedicated a whole section of this feature to explaining our easy-to-follow bulletproof backup method that’s guaranteed to keep your files safe forever.
Have you ever stopped to consider just how many complicated components are crammed inside your computer? The answer is ‘many’. In fact it’s a small miracle that hardware problems aren’t more commonplace. All it takes is one of these highly sensitive parts to develop a fault, and suddenly your PC becomes about as useful as a chocolate tea cosy.
If your computer is crippled by faulty hardware there’s still a chance that your files themselves are still intact. If a power surge has fried your PC’s memory, for example, simply replacing it should fix the problem without any long-term effect to your documents and photos. And even if your processor or motherboard completely dies, it’s normally still possible to copy your files off the hard drive by plugging it into another PC If the hard drive itself falls, however, that’s a very different story. And. sadly, of all the components that can fail, the one most likely to Is your hard drive. Especially if your PC has a traditional mechanical drive. SSDs benefit from fewer moving parts and are therefore less prone to faults.
How do I prevent it?
Annoyingly, hardware faults often strike out of the blue. But there are measures you can take to minimize the likelihood. Firstly, keep your PC clean – dust build-up can cause components to overheat and become damaged. So clean around the vents every so often and, if it’s a desktop PC open up the case and clean away any dust inside. Do so carefully, though, otherwise you risk causing even more damage. Only open your computer when it’s turned off and unplugged, and use a can of compressed air to gently blow away any dust you find inside.
Keeping an eye on your hard drive’s health can warn you of impending failure
Free tools can also help to monitor your PC’s health and alert you to potential problems. Speccy from the makers of CCleaner is a very useful all-round hardware tool that analyses all the components in your PC and uses your computer’s internal sensors to warn you if overheating is likely. For your hard drive, get CrystalDisklnfo, which checks your drive’s temperature, error nates, spin-up time and so on, and provides you with an overall health score.
Most SSDs come with their own manufacturer s tool for monitoring and maintaining health. Samsung drives, for example, come with a program called Magician.
Of all the malicious attacks you can fall prey to, ransomware is easily the most upsetting. It works by locking you out of your own files and demanding that you pay criminal hackers to regain access to them. It’s effective, too. Trend Micro estimates that in 2015 more than £244 million was paid out by PC users to a single strain of ransomware known as CryptoWall (see screenshot above).
Ransomware is evolving quickly.
Recent variants, such as the Jigsaw ransomware, instill even more panic by threatening to permanently destroy a certain number of personal files every hour until you pay up. Once your files have been encrypted, there’s often little you can do except pay the crooks’ demands as the University of Calgary in Canada found out last month when it was forced to pay a $20,000 (about £15,000) ransom. Worse still, paying up doesn’t always guarantee you’ll get your files back.
How do I prevent It?
Ransomware can get on to your PC In a number of ways, but it’s usually spread via phishing emails, infected websites or fake software updates for popular programs, such as Adobe Acrobat.
As with other types of malware, good security software, such as Kaspersky, can help prevent ransomware from Infecting your PC But due to the ever changing nature of these threats, it’s vital to keep your security tools up to date.
Knowledge can be an effective weapon, too. We reported on a new type of ransomware that can determine which ISP you use without you even knowing, and then defraud you by impersonating them. It’s a convincing con, but those who have been forewarned are far less likely to fall for it, so keep reading Top New Review to make sure you’re always alerted to the latest tricks.
By far the best way to thwart a ransomware attack is to have a full backup of your system and all your files on a drive or USB stick that isn’t connected to your PC. That way you can ignore any demands for money and simply restore your data – or even Windows itself, if needs be.
Read more – Backing up to the cloud
Cloud services that stop working
Cloud services are a hugely convenient way to back up your flies – that is until they go offline. A worrying number of recent incidents have resulted in people losing access to flies because cloud services have shut down or been restricted.
Barnes & Noble closed its UK Nook ebook service in March, making it impossible for users of the company’s e-readers to download Items they had paid for. Similarly, Amazon gave users a deadline of 22 March this year to update older Kindle devices, or they’d be disconnected from the web – and their online book collections.
Meanwhile, Google killed off its much-loved Picasa Web Albums online photo service in May (though it did transfer user’s photos to Google Photos). And users of Microsoft’s OneDrive only have until 27 July to reduce the amount they store online, after the company slashed its 15GB free allowance to just 5GB. If your OneDrive quota exceeds 5GB following that date, Microsoft will convert the contents of your account to read-only files, meaning you’ll no longer be able to edit them. If after 9 months, you’re still over quota, your account will be locked and after a year, your files will be deleted.
Read more – Get 272GB of online storage for FREE
How do I prevent It?
Obviously, there’s little you can do to influence executive decisions made in the boardrooms of big multinational tech companies. But that doesn’t mean you need to be a victim of arbitrary changes to the services you rely on. The best advice is to keep offline copies of any flies you store online. If you use a storage service like OneDrive, for example, make sure you install the desktop tool that syncs with a folder on your hard drive, so that there are always versions of your files on your PC, too.
In the case of your ebook collection, make sure you download copies of all the items you buy, rather than putting all your trust in services that you may suddenly find yourself cut off from. You could take the additional precaution of converting all your purchased ebook files to PDFs (or another non-DRM format) and backing these up along with your other personal files. Free ebook library management tool Calibre will let you do this. A similar approach can be taken with any cloud photo services you use.
Botched Windows 10 upgrade
Microsoft has gone to great pains to make the process of upgrading to Windows 10 as smooth as possible. But that hasn’t stopped thousands of users falling foul of failed upgrade attempts. And, in some cases, the process has left people with no access to their PC – and therefore their flies – at all.
To a certain extent, this is to be expected. Upgrading your OS is a massively complex process from a technical point of view, with no shortage of opportunities for things to go wrong. No matter how much Microsoft wants you to upgrade, the decision to do so is not one you should make lightly. Turn to page 58 to find out whether Windows 10 is right for you.
How do I prevent it?
Newer PCs are less likely to collapse under the strain of installing Windows 10, but there are so many different configurations out there. Even if your computer gets the all-clear from Microsoft’s pre-upgrade compatibility check, it’s very hard to predict how it will cope when the upgrade is carried out. The best way to avoid losing files during the upgrade is to make a complete system image of your current PC prior to installing the new OS.
I hat way, you can always revert everything to exactly how it was before you began.
If s worth remembering that while it might look like an OS upgrade has wiped your personal files, they may still be lurking somewhere on your PC. First, double-check you’re signed into Windows 10 with the same account you used before the upgrade – if not, access to your old folders may be blocked. Likewise, if you opted into OneDrive during the setup, Windows might be using this as the default save location, rather than your Documents folder. Try navigating to GVUsers Your user name and checking the Documents, Pictures and other folders there.
NEVER LOSE FILES ON YOUR PHONE OR TABLET
The files you keep on your tablet or phone are just as vulnerable as those on your PC – arguably more so – because portable devices are more likely to be lost, stolen and damaged. Thankfully. Android and Apple devices offer plenty of options for safeguarding the data stored on them.
Android users’ settings and data are usually backed up to their Google account automatically. Tap Settings. Backup & reset to make sure it’s switched on.
There are also loads of services that let you automatically back up the photos and videos on your device. The easiest is probably Google Photos – open the app, tap menu (three lines, top-left), tap Settings, then Backup & sync to make sure photo backup is enabled. We recommend keeping a separate offline backup (on your PC. for example) by connecting your Android device to your PC with a USB cable and copying across the files on your phone.
Apple users have the option of backing up their entire device to their PC using iTunes – just plug it in via the supplied USB cable, click your device’s Icon and select ‘This computer’ from the Summary page. Alternatively, you can back up settings, photos and videos to your iCloud account (tap Settings. iCloud, then Backup), though Apple is pretty stingy with its free allowance (currently a rather measly 5GB).
Failed file transfers
Transferring files from one place to another seems like a fairly innocuous exercise. But, in some cases, the process can result in files going missing for one reason or another. Windows itself is often to blame here. For example, if you’re moving a big batch of files from one location to another and one of the files happens to cause Windows a problem during the moving process, the entire transfer will Call, potentially leaving any remaining files that haven’t been transferred in limbo.
Another way you can lose files during a transfer is to accidentally leave them behind. This can easily happen if, for example, you’re transferring files from an old PC to a new one, particularly if you’re doing this manually using a USB drive as an intermediary. It’s easy to overlook important files or folders.
How do I prevent it?
If a Windows file transfer fails, the Ctrl+Z keyboard shortcut is your friend. This essentially undoes the transfer, putting all the files you were moving back where they were. As a general rule, it’s usually safer to copy files rather than move or cut (Ctrl+X) and paste them. Copying leaves the files In their original location too -you can delete these when you’ve made sure that the copying process has completed without any hitches.
If you’re moving to a new PC we thoroughly recommend using a dedicated tool to transfer your files, rather than attempting to move them yourself by dragging and dropping them to an external drive. For a limited time, Microsoft is currently offering link’s excellent PCmover Express for free, so it’s worth grabbing this before the offer ends (on 31 August 2016). It’s also a good idea to keep the old PC around for a while before you dump or sell it, just to be on the safe side.
Anything from computer crashes to cosmic radiation can damage the data we store on our devices, causing files to stop working as they should. You might, for example, open a photo file to discover it’s a mess of colored streaks, or launch a Word document to find it has devolved into pages of gobbledygook. In some cases, you’ll just be greeted by an error message.
How do I prevent It?
Cosmic rays aside, looking after your hardware will go a long way to preventing corruption. Always shut down Windows properly before switching your PC of Tor unplugging it from the mains, and use a surge protector between your PC and the wall socket. If you use Windows 7, you should also regularly check your hard drive for file-system errors. Open Computer, then right-click your system drive (usually C: drive) and select Properties. Click the Tools tab, then click ‘Check now’. Make sure both ‘Automatically fix file system errors’ and ‘Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors’ are selected (see screenshot below left), then click Start. Windows 8 and 10 do this automatically, but you can also run a manual drive check in the same way, if you suspect something’s wrong.
Lost, stolen or damaged PC
Even if your household insurance covers the loss, theft or destruction of your PC, you won’t find a policy that can replace the documents and photos it contained – that part’s up to you.
How do I prevent it?
Better household security can help to deter burglars, but apart from keeping your PC locked in a flood and fireproof panic room at all times, there are limits to how much you can protect your tech against random acts of crime or damage to your property. If you have a Windows 10 laptop or tablet, though, you can at least use the operating system’s Find My Device feature to track it dowm if it’s ever lost. Click Start, Settings, ‘Update & security’, then Find My Device. If It’s switched off, click Change, then switch ‘Save my device’s location periodically’ to On. If you ever misplace your device, sign into your account at account.microsoft.com/devices to see where it was last located. Similar features are offered by Android (Device Manager in Google Settings) and iOS (Find my iPhone/iPad).
If you can’t physically get to the device, then you won’t be able to retrieve the files it contains. But a company called Prey is currently working on an update for its geolocation tool that will soon let users remotely retrieve files from a lost or stolen device. Prey offers free and paid-for plans (from £4 per month) for laptops, tablets and phones.
Most of us have fallen victim to this at some point or another in our lives. We erase a file or folder only to suddenly break out In a cold sweat when we realise we need it back. Technically speaking, accidentally deleting files isn’t the problem – that Just sends them to the Recycle Bin (unless they’re too large). It’s accidentally emptying the Recycle Bin that then permanently casts the files you deleted into oblivion.
How do I prevent It?
Accidents of this kind are inevitable, but the good news Is that there are ways to recover files, even if you haven’t set up a backup. Your first port of call should be the Recycle Bin. If all you did was hit delete, your files should still be here, so right-click them and select Restore.
If you’ve emptied the Recycle Bin since the deletion, open File Explorer and navigate to the folder you deleted the file(s) from. Right-click the folder and select Properties, then click the Previous Versions tab. If a previous version of the folder is shown, click the most recent one, then click the down arrow next to Restore and select ‘Restore to’. Choose a different location to the original – such as your desktop – and click ‘Select folder’. This will ensure you don’t overwrite any other flies in the same folder. Files you accidentally deleted should be contained inside the folder you restored. This feature works best if you’ve enabled Windows’ built-in backup tool (see page 56), but even if you haven’t, it may still be possible to restore flies, thanks to automatic System Restore points.
If you accidentally delete a file from your cloud-storage service, you should be able to restore it, because most services automatically keep previous versions of files. In Dropbox, for example, you can log Into your account via its web page (www.dropbox.com), then right-click inside any folder and select ‘Show deleted flies’ to restore any you need.
Because data remains hidden on a hard drive until its overwritten there’s another way to retrieve files you’ve permanently deleted from your hard drive – as long as your drive is not an SSD. Recuva is a free tool that can restore deleted flics – the trouble is, installing it could overwrite the very data you want to restore. Therefore, it’s a good idea to download and install It now, so it’s already on hand should you need it.
Flawed or faulty backups
What if you turn to your backed-up files in times of need only to find that they too have succumbed to some kind of problem? Backup copies can often be Just as vulnerable as your original files.
Mechanical problems, data corruption and malware infections can all affect external drives in exactly the same way as internal ones. Ransomware, for example, often works by scanning for certain file types – Jpeg, doex, xlsx and so on – and will lock you out of any it finds, whether they’re on your C Drive, a connected external drive or even in the cloud. Alternatively, malware might block access to files you’ve stored in the cloud.
How do I prevent it?
We’ve already explained how to guard against data corruption, hardware failure and ransomware attacks, so apply our earlier advice to any external drives you use for backing up, too. And by following our advice over the page, even your backups will be backed up, so you’ll never have to worry about losing access to your files again.
MORE THREATS TO YOUR FILES
Forgetting your IV/ password
Most services – including Microsoft accounts – let you reset your password if you forget it But If you use a local account to log into Windows, we heartily recommend plugging in a spare USB flash drive, going to Control Panel. ‘User Accounts and Family Safety”. User Accounts, then clicking Create a password reset disk” -its always best to be prepared!
Defragmenting or shredding an SSD
The flash memory used in SSDs is fast but only good for a few thousand write cycles. Defragmenting or shredding drive space can bring your SSD’s lifespan to a premature end, potentially causing the loss of files. SSDs don’t need defragging anyway – Just let Windows optimize the drive automatically.
Some malicious programs will happily corrupt your files without bothering to ask for a ransom and may render your PC entirely unusable. Keep your antivirus software up to date and never open email attachments or browser downloads unless you’re certain they’re safe.
CREATE THE ULTIMATE BACKUP
The best way to protect your flies is to make sure you always haw backup copies that you can fall back on if you need to.
But to be effective, your backup method needs to be simple and reliable – if you can’t depend on it when you need to, then it’s next to useless.
In addition, for reasons we’ve already mentioned elsewhere in this feature, having just one backup isn’t enough. In fact, we recommend keeping up to three copies of your files at all times, as well as a separate occasional backup of your entire system. It might sound like overkill, but it’s the only way to guarantee that your files arc safe from all the threats we’ve outlined so far.
Local file backup
Backing up to the cloud has its advantages (see below) but it’s Important to haw a local backup too, in case internet disruptions, malware or other problems cut you off from your online files. You can use Windows’ built-in tools for this.
Plug in a large external hard drive and. in Windows 10. click Start, Settings. ‘Update & security’, then Backup. Select your drive and click ‘More options’ to choose which folders to include or exclude and how often to back up (the default is every hour, see screenshot right). Leave your drive plugged in and your files will be backed up in the background. If you ever need to restore a deleted file, you can use the Previous Versions method described on page 55, or you can click •Restore files from a current backup’ under ‘More options’ to bring up a calendar-like
explorer window that lets you browse earlier versions of your files by date.
Windows 8 has a version of File History, too (under ‘System and Security’ in the Control Panel). Windows 7’s equivalent tool (also under ‘System and Security’ in the Control Panel) isn’t as good, but does let you schedule a basic daily local backup.
Keeping additional ‘ofF-site’ copies of your files in the cloud will protect you in situations where accidental damage, theft or hardware failure has wiped out your local backup. A free account with Dropbox (2GB), OneDrive (5GB) or Google Drive (15GB) should provide enough space for your most important files, such as valued documents and photos. It’s obviously safer to back up all your personal files to the cloud, but you’ll need to pay (or juggle multiple accounts) if you require more storage than is offered for free.
The process of backing up to the cloud is easy -download the relevant desktop tool for your service (Windows 10 comes with OneDrive built in), and anything you store. In the cloud service’s folder on your PC will automatically sync with your online storage. The only drawback is that this will also sync your files if they’re damaged or encrypted by ransomware, meaning you could get locked out of your cloud backup, too. If your cloud service automatically keeps previous versions of your files (most do), you should be able to revert them to non-encrypted versions again. In Dropbox, for example, log into your account via a browser, right-click a file and select ‘Previous versions’.
A system image
The final piece of the puzzle is a system image a snapshot of your PC’s entire hard drive that you can use to restore your computer and all its files in situations where something has gone catastrophically wrong. Window’s has a built-in tool, but we recommend using a third-party imaging program that isn’t tied to a specific OS. We’ve covered using EaseUs ToDo Free, which works with all recent Windows versions. so follow that for more details.
You don’t haw to make a system image backup every day once a month should suffice. But, for absolute safety, we recommend using a different external drive to the one you’re using for your local file backup and unplugging the driw every time the system image backup is completed. That way it’s safe from ransomware attacks and will still giw you a way to restore files, should your other backups fail. If you want to create a backup of the odd file in-between system image backups you could also saw them to a USB stick, being sure to remove it from your PC afterwards so it can be stored in a safe place along with your main backup.