Computer meltdowns, data loss, spyware invasions - all the demons of the digital age I'd read about but never thought would visit my home PC. After all, I protected my home computer with a firewall, virus protection software and an anti-spyware program. Plus I had a subscription to Carbonite, an online backup service, that for $50 a year promised to save a copy of all my files, which could be safely sent me via the internet.

So when the hard drive of my home computer crashed a few weeks ago, I was unprepared for my feeling of utter disorientation. It was like the great Northeast blackout of 1965. Or the no-television punishment of my childhood. Or staring at my keys through the sewer grate.

No internet at home to look up a quick answer to a question or a phone number, no e-mail and no ability to work at home. As a freelance writer and editor, I frequently work at the editorial offices of various magazines. But my next assignment was to edit at home some stories that would arrive via e-mail. Plus, all my notations about my work schedule, my assignments and my business contacts were, for now, inaccessible.


The Windows operating system had simply ceased to run -- while I was talking to Dell online support in an attempt to speed up my machine's sluggish operation. My Dell Dimension 9150 PC was less than two years old so this meltdown came as a complete surprise. The working supposition was that somehow my hard drive had become contaminated. I offer my tale of computer meltdown woes so others can learn from my right moves before and after.

Fortunately because I had renewed my hardware service contract for a second year, Dell agreed to send me a new hard drive. But first I had to endure a few unsuccessful attempts by online support technicians to revive my machine. First they tried to reinstall the Windows operating system via the disks provided upon computer purchase. Then they mailed me new copies so they could rule out the possibility that my installation disks had become contaminated after months of disuse in my closet.

To stave off an acute attack of e-mail-deprivation disorder, I dashed to the nearest public library branch two blocks away. To my relief, I quickly landed a computer equipped with internet access and was able to read a substantial amount of my recent messages through the Web interface of my e-mail account (but not any ones sent, received or stored at home via the Outlook Express interface). Of course, computer sessions are limited to a half an hour and no cell phones allowed.

The major first decision I faced was: Did I want to be Ms. Tech-Do-It-Herself and install the new hard drive, something I'd never before attempted? Dell support personnel imbued me with confidence: They said it was easy, a process they could walk me through over the phone. Or did I want to hoist up my desktop PC, carry it down three flights of stairs and into a taxi headed to the nearest Best Buy, and drop it off with the new hard drive for the Geek Squad to reinstall -- after extracting all my data from the contaminated one?

The Geek Squad offered to come to my house Friday afternoon, just two days later, and do it all for $419. Or I could drop it off at Best Buy and the job would be completed in a week and a half, and at a slightly lower price.

In the end, impatience and frugality informed my next move: I reinstalled the new hard drive in less than an hour (with a little help from my long-distance phone buddies at Dell). Installing the new hard drive was the easy part. I didn't even make use of the screwdriver I'd dug out of my toolbox. Joyfully I canceled the Geek Squad appointment, inwardly advancing myself to geek status.

I reinstalled some of my most important software programs, beginning of course with the antivirus program - and then reinstalled the software for my online backup service so I could slowly regain my data. I set it all in motion and waited for the files to reappear on my new hard drive, like a self-cleaning oven working its wonders.

As the editorial gods would have it: Friday arrived with good news: A story I had handed in a month earlier had advanced to the final copy edit stage before publication. The bad news was, I had to answer a few editors' questions without access to my notes stored on my computer's old hard drive.

Indeed, stored in the expired drive were most of my research notes for articles I'd written. Not to mention my family history research (some 20 years' worth, including interview transcripts and scans of original documents, photos and family scrapbooks).

After two weeks of impatient waiting, only a small fraction of my data files resurfaced on my hard drive. Many phone calls to Carbonite's online support (inconveniently coinciding with the daytime hours I had to work outside home) determined that one evening in March someone (presumably me) had unchecked the command for my document files to be backed up by the company. So a month from that date, my online backup service shed all my document files. Needless to say, I was far from happy.

I needed help getting all my data off the old hard drive. I knew I could bring in my hard drive to the Geek Squad, but I wasn't sure I wanted to go that route. Not certain where to turn, I posted a question to many of my LinkedIn contacts in New York, seeking their advice about how to extract data from a contaminated hard drive. I also posted the message to the LinkedIn community at large. Within minutes, I was rich in message replies.

Tech-oriented folks in the general LinkedIn universe wrote to me describing how simple it was to extract data from a hard drive.

From reading the replies I gained a rough understanding of the process - and an offer by a trusted former colleague, a senior information technology professional, to tackle the job. I am pleased to report that I was reunited with my files after a painless house call.

A further follow-up session helped resolve a curious problem of Windows updates failing to take. Upon closer inspection, we realized that my spyware-detection program wasn't properly activated, and we installed another one too. To my horror, a spyware scan detected a couple of malicious programs squatted within my PC, including NetVizor, sinisterly described as able to "monitor and capture your computer activity, including recording all keystrokes, e-mails, chat room dialogue, instant message dialogue, Web sites visited, usernames, passwords, and programs run." It could also snap screen shots of the desktop and keep information on my computer in an encrypted log file.The program runs in the background, a hidden presence. "NetVizor is typically installed by someone with administrative access to your computer," the spyware detection program informed me.

After this scare, I resolved to faithfully keep tabs on my spyware program. I learned that unlike with antivirus software (just one program is recommended), multiple anti-spyware programs can be helpful. Plus, backing up your data in more than one way is always wise. So if you use your computer to store important data, pay your bills or purchase products online, beware!


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