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Help! I Accidentally Emptied the Recycle Bin!

So, you got a little itchy with the trigger finger and accidentally clicked “Yes” when Windows asked if you were sure you wanted to permanently delete that super important file from your Recycle Bin? First of all, don’t panic. Take a breath. At this point, doing nothing is far less harmful than taking uninformed action. If you just recently emptied the Recycle Bin, you have reasonable amount of free disk space, and you haven’t already done something rash, there’s a very, very good chance that you can undelete some or all of your lost files.
Still with us? Good. We’ll get to how to recover delete files, even after you empty them from your Recycle Bin. But for the skimmers, we have some more do nots to emphasize before we get to the how-tos.
Do not perform a System Restore. Windows System Restore is designed to restore the settings and configuration of your operating system, not the stored files. System Restore is not the same as a backup and it will not undo an emptied Recycle Bin. In fact, it will probably drastically decrease your chances of recovering your lost data, since a System Restore involves a restart and heavy read/write activity.
Do not restart your computer. If you have already, don’t fret—all hope is not lost. However, you should avoid performing any operation that reads and writes new or temporary data to the disk where your lost file used to reside. Basically, your file is still there. The only difference is that the space it was taking up has been marked as “free.” The file in its entirety will stay there until some other program needs to use the space. Restarting your computer involves quite a bit of read/write activity—not as much as a System Restore, but it’s still enough that you don’t want to risk it if you can help it.
Do not write new data to the disk. Again, if you have already, it’s not the end of the world. But this warning follows the same logic as the above. If you are going to download an undelete program (which you will), save it to a portable drive (like a USB drive or SD memory card) or another partition on the disk.

Restoring Files after They’ve Been Emptied from the Recycle Bin

Now that you’ve successfully not done all of the above (or even if you have done a few of them), it’s time to get your files back. Here’s what you should do:
Step 1: Download a decent undelete or file recovery utility and save it to another partition or disk if you can.
There are many free undelete programs, but you’ll have better luck with a professional tool. TestDisk is a well-loved open source solution, but as a command line interface tool, it’s not the most user-friendly.
R-Undelete is a very, very reliable undelete program with a nice graphic user interface for Windows; you can use the Home version to recover files from FAT/exFAT disks for free, or evaluate whether a file recovery is possible from NTFS disks before you buy (BTW, if you decide to buy R-Undelete you may try 15% discount coupon RCNIP0FKPEPG that was valid when we wrote this article).
One last piece of advice on this step: if you are low on disk space (which is perhaps why you prematurely emptied your Recycle Bin in the first place), you are better off going with the best file recovery utility available from the get go. That’s because downloading additional tools and running multiple file searches amounts to more read/write cycles on your disk. The less free disk space you have, the less margin you have for trial and error. A workaround for this is if you download the program(s) to a separate partition or disk and create an image of the target disk (see the other tips below).
Step 2: Run a basic file recovery search.
This is the automated process that all basic undelete utilities use. This does a scan of the drive for easily recognizable files and lets you choose which ones you want to restore. Depending on the size of the disk, this may take a while.
If this doesn’t work, don’t give up yet. There’s still one more thing you can try.
Step 3: Run a raw file search (search for known file types).
If a basic search fails, then you may still have some success by running a raw file search. This is an advanced file recovery method that looks for the digital signature of a specific file type. If you are looking for a file that isn’t a typical file extension, this may be your best bet.
Most free/basic undelete tools will not have this functionality, so you may have to call in the big guns.
The same folks who make TestDisk also have a program called PhotoRec which lets you add your own file extensions. But again, it’s not the most user-friendly option, unless you’re adept with command line tools.
Likewise, R-Tools Technology, the makers of R-Undelete, have a higher end product called R-Studio that has raw file search and custom known file types capability. The benefit of R-Studio is that it has a nice graphical user interface. Similar to R-Undelete, you can try the demo R-Studio to see if the utility can even find your file. Once you have it located, you can register the full version to restore your lost file.

Other Tips

These are the basic tools at your disposal for an accidental Recycle Bin emptying. On the spectrum of data recovery challenges, an emptied Recycle Bin is actually fairly simple when compared to a damaged, corrupted, reformatted, or fragmented drive. Still, some of the advanced file recovery tactics used for these situations could potentially increase your chances of recovery for a simple undelete task. Just know that the following may be overkill:
  • Dismount or eject the drive or partition where the file was located. If you can do so without shutting down the computer, then great. Or, if you have already shut down the computer, then go ahead and remove the drive now.
  • If it is the system disk and you have already shut down the computer, you can remove it from the computer and mount it to another machine via a USB enclosure or a docking station. In this way, you can avoid performing a startup operation on the disk.
  • If the disk is near capacity or damaged, you can minimize the chances of your deleted files being overwritten by creating an image of the disk. This takes a snapshot of the disk as-is and will prevent files from being overwritten or corrupted by subsequent disk activity. Then, you can perform your file recovery tasks on the disk image instead of the disk.
  • Windows 7 users can right-click the Recycle Bin and choose “Properties.” From there, you can increase the amount of space allotted to the Recycle Bin. This will allow files to stay in the Recycle Bin longer before it fills up. This will benefit you in the future (in case you haven’t already learned your lesson) because it will give you more time between actual deletion and file recovery.
Good luck! And next time, back up your stuff!

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