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Published On: August 1, 2018 by Blake Schwank

This is a common question that users have. If you delete a file off your hard drive, is it gone forever or can it be recovered?

Most people delete files, then empty their recycling bin and think that a file is gone for good. But is it?

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When working with NTFS-formatted hard drives, it’s just not enough to delete the file and empty the trash. Though the file appears to be deleted from your hard drive, the only thing that’s actually deleted is the roadmap to where the file was located. You’re also giving your hard drive permission to write over the space that the file occupied, which will eventually happen sooner or later.

If you are selling your laptop and don’t want the new owners to find and recover your files, then it’s necessary to go a step further. Lingering data can be dangerous in the hands of hackers. What if one of the files you deleted included all your usernames and passwords?

There are a couple of options for truly deleting data from your hard drive. But first, let’s take a harder look at what actually happens when you delete a file.

What Happens When You Delete A File?

When you delete a file, the space it occupied is marked as empty but the file is still there. It’s only gone when you save enough files to write over the space. In most cases, it takes time before a user adds enough data to a hard drive to completely write over the space.

You save a few files today, then a few more tomorrow and eventually, the location the old deleted file occupied is now completely written over. That’s when the file is truly deleted from your hard drive. Up until this occurs, there are methods and software applications that can recover all or part of the old file.

So What Can I Do To Make Sure the Old File Is Truly Gone?

One thing you could do is simply save a bunch of bogus files until you’re pretty sure that the old file has been overwritten. But that’s kind of a hit and miss way to get the job done. Today, there are numerous utility programs on the market that are designed to clean and defrag your hard drive. Some of these programs are free and all are pretty straightforward to use.

Using Commercial Utility Programs

If you’re really determined to delete confidential data, then be sure to use reputable software to do this. There are utility programs out there from well-known brands that can scrub the unused chunks of data from your disk. Get a good reliable program that has positive feedback from users, then install it and follow the instructions to fully clean (and usually defrag) your hard drive.

Warning When Using Utility Programs!

Though programs like Norton Power Eraser and CCleaner have been hugely popular, just last year, hackers took advantage of these utility tools and found a way to compromise them. In September of 2017, hackers created a program called Floxif Trojan that installed a backdoor on millions of computers using CCleaner.

Once you have malicious code installed on your computer, you’ve got a whole new set of problems. In addition to infecting over 2 million computers, the Floxif Trojan targeted big tech companies such as Intel, Samsung, and VMWare. You can’t be too careful these days!

Delete Something From My Hard Drive

Other Methods of Erasing the Free Space

If you have the skills, you can overwrite the file location using ones and zeros. However, this can be time-consuming. In addition, there are high tech companies nowadays that specialize in recovering deleted files. They’ve been able to use a microscope to view the “ghost image” of data that has been overwritten. Of course, this process is extremely expensive and only used in cases where a major crime has been committed.

Take comfort from knowing this: A buyer from eBay would never go to that much trouble to recover your old files.

The last option and most irreversible one is simply to destroy your hard drive. In most cases, this would be an expensive way to delete a file. Your data would be completely irretrievable but your laptop wouldn’t be much good without a hard drive.

Hire an IT Pro

If you have decided to sell an old computer and you’re worried about the deleted files being recovered, you can take the computer to any computer tech and ask them to do the job for you. They have methods to completely overwrite all the information that was on the drive so that it can never be recovered. Yes, they do charge for this service, but if it offers someone peace of mind, then it’s well worth it.

Deleting email messages or Folders 

Though the process to deleting an email or email folder is similar to that of deleting files, there are a few important differences to be aware of. Most email programs are set up to empty the trash at regular intervals, say when you close the program. In most cases, once the email is deleted, it’s really gone. That’s because your emails aren’t actually stored on your hard drive. They reside on the email server, so the only way to get a deleted email back is to contact your email service. Though there are programs that say they can recover deleted emails, this depends on various factors such as who your email server is and how long ago the email was deleted.

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