Q: I sent my laptop to a repair facility for warranty service and when I got it back, all my files were gone! How can they get away with this kind of treatment and what could I have done to prevent it?

A: There are only two kinds of computers in this world: Those with a problem and those that are going to have a problem, which means virtually everyone who owns a computer will someday find themselves in this situation.

Trusting that whoever is working on your computer is concerned about preserving your data is a dangerous thing these days.

The sad fact is that many repair facilities treat computers like they are appliances; their only concern is that they return the physical computer to factory condition. What’s worse, when they do wipe your data and you complain, they simply point to the small print of the service agreement and state that preserving your data was your responsibility.

It’s like a refrigerator repairman that destroys all your food without warning you, but proclaims he did his job because he got your icemaker working again.

To be fair, no service company will take responsibility for your data from a legal standpoint because the liability is too high and uncontrollable, so you need to keep this in mind whenever you have any type of service performed on any computer.

Warranty laptop service is where we see wiped hard drives the most, because you send your unit off to some far-off repair facility and don’t get to talk to anyone at the facility about your concerns, and they assume you understand their process.

Warranty repair processes are designed to be efficient for the repair center, which means there is little regard to the data stored on the unit. So many laptops return from warranty service completely wiped out because their prime objective is to return the unit to factory specifications, which often means a clean installation of the operating system.

We tell our customers to assume that they are going to lose all their data when sending their laptops in for warranty service, so they should plan accordingly. We routinely make an image copy of their hard drive for them as a precaution before they send it off, which is what we recommend everyone do if they can.

An image backup differs from a file backup because it actually makes an exact copy of the entire hard drive instead of just certain data files. If the laptop comes back wiped out, you can restore the image on the hard drive so that everything is exactly the way it was before you sent it in.

Unsophisticated or lazy repair people will also opt to wipe everything out of your computer and start over because it’s faster and easier, so you should always ask any repair facility how they handle the process of “reloading the operating system.”

The most painful repair scenario for computer users is when you have to start from scratch (especially if you haven’t planned for it), which is why most experienced service providers will only use the “wipe it out” option as a last resort.

Most folks don’t think about how much work it will be to reinstall all your programs (if you can even find the original disks), restore your backups (if you have one), reconfigure the various settings for all your programs, reinstall your printer drivers, import your favorites, restore your address book and about 20 other things that took you years to get just the way you like it.

Another thing to think about is any sensitive information that you may want to protect since the natural course of computer service will expose all your files to the technician.

Start by making sure your checkbook program or other sensitive programs and files are password protected, and remove the saved passwords for your online accounts from your browsers.

If you want to make sure your individual files and pictures aren’t accessed, you can temporarily move them to an external hard drive or create an encrypted volume on your hard drive to store your sensitive files with a free program such as TrueCrypt (http://www.truecrypt.org.)

Of course, none of these steps can be done if computer is completely down, which brings us back to the trust issue — so choose your computer service provider wisely.

• Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the Data Doctors Radio Program, noon Saturdays on KTAR 92.3 FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio

Readers may send questions to evtrib@datadoctors.com

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