There are ways and means to recover files that have gone walkabout, even if you caused their disappearance yourself.

This article appears in the May 07 issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents.

Everyone encounters this problem at some point, whether by accidentally deleting that all-important file after spending too many hours at your PC, or following a system crash that corrupts data on your hard drive.

If you've prepared in advance for such a thing to happen, it can be an easy problem to fix. However, if you don't do this quickly, Windows will overwrite your hard drive with new data, meaning your old files could be gone for good.

There are three reasons data gets lost or corrupted: the most common is that files are deleted. Less common, but still fixable in many instances, is that data is corrupted or lost when an application or Windows crashes. The rarest cause (and most difficult to fix) is a problem with your hard drive.

Human error

If the problem is one of human error, start with the basics. Check that your files haven't simply been sent to the recycle bin or moved to a different folder. Windows doesn't have a built-in undelete utility, but there are plenty of third-party tools to help you out.

More often, data will be lost after an application or Windows crash. You might be able to recover data by going to My Computer, right-clicking on the appropriate drive and selecting Properties. Select the Tools tab and click Check now under Error-checking. These tools aren't very user-friendly so we recommend a third-party utility.

Convar's PC Inspector File Recovery 4.0 is particularly useful. This freeware utility has just been released in an updated form with several new features. As well as a much improved interface and the ability to recover files from FAT and NTFS file systems, it can find lost disk partitions or save files that went awol over a network.

Back up your PC

Relying on undelete programs alone isn't wise. You should have a backup routine in place and we have included a couple of useful programs in our toolkit with this aim in mind. It's one of those tasks that every PC user knows they should do, but many ignore, yet backing up your system needn't be a time-consuming affair.

At the very basic level, you can back data up to CD or a thumb drive as and when you see fit, but the best bet is to automate the task.

Backup utilities that save your data to a second hard disk or even a dedicated backup device are available, but the safest option is to use an online facility.

In the May 07 issue of PC Advisor we look at one service – Cobian – which allows you to automate online backups for up to 2GB of data. However, for greater peace of mind you'll want to back up far larger chunks of your hard drive. It needn't cost you an arm and a leg: BT's Digital Vault offers 20GB for £5 per month, while another firm, Carbonite, promises unlimited backup for £3 per month.

Professional help

If the problem is a hardware one, your data may still be safe but you'll probably need expert help to recover it. Alongside more typical utilities, we've listed a couple of companies below that could help you in the most extreme circumstances.