December 01, 2019 Feature

When Technology Goes Wrong

Wells H. Anderson

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Technical glitches strike without warning and cause panic, aggravation, lost time, and lost work.

Technical glitches strike without warning and cause panic, aggravation, lost time, and lost work.

Oh no! Your computer just crashed or your phone died. Now what do you do? You may be tempted to skip this article because, right now, your computer and phone are fine. Hold on for a second. Technical glitches strike without warning and cause panic, aggravation, lost time, and lost work.

Most days your technology works, but for the inopportune time when it doesn’t, here are some reasons to keep reading or at least to save this article in a folder called “Emergency Tech Help.”

Pain and Misery

What if you are struck by a technology disaster you aren’t fully prepared for or couldn’t avoid? These are some of the potential consequences:

Where would you be with a dead phone?

  • Literally, where would you be? You don’t have a map.
  • Who are you going to call? Uh, no one. Even if you borrow a phone, you may not know the phone numbers you need.
  • What’s next in your life? You don’t know. No calendar. No texts.

What if your computer crashes?

  • Were you just composing complicated or sensitive material in a document or e-mail? Poof! It’s gone, unless by chance it was just automatically saved.
  • How fast can you work as you peck away on your tiny phone screen? Plus, you don’t have the materials you need.
  • What about your deadlines?

What if ransomware strikes both your computer and your backup drive?

  • If you don’t have another backup or it’s old, bye-bye files.
  • You’ll have to reinstall and update your software. Where are all the software installers and keys? Yikes!
  • You were used to the way your computer and software were set up. It’ll be a long time before you have them back close to the way they were.
  • Did you have any old, irreplaceable family photos or videos on your hard drive? Better check your backups.

The rest of this article covers how to recover from these technology disasters. Again, before you stop reading because you have no current disaster, do two things:

  1. Print out this article. Put it into a paper folder labeled “Emergency Tech Help.” Or copy it to your phone. It won’t do you any good on a computer that is crashed.
  2. Check your most recent backup. Log in to your backup system web page or open your backup software. Look for an important recent file and restore it. Did that work? Great! Didn’t work? Then take care of that as soon as you can.

Emergencies and Responses

Knowing what to do in advance lets you react faster and smarter. Though you’ll probably be upset, you may reduce the panic and shock of a sudden, alarming incident by having guidance close at hand.

Dead or Lost Phone

Most of us have become dependent on our phones for all sorts of things. If your phone dies or disappears, you need to act fast to get it working or replaced.

If it is lost and you have a “find me” app or feature enabled on your phone, get to your computer or to someone with a phone. You may be able to locate your phone as I did when it slipped out of my pocket in an airport parking ramp. You will need to know the website, login, and password for your “find me” app or feature.

Note to yourself: Activate “find me” on your phone and either memorize or put the login and password in your purse or wallet and in your password manager.

It was too late for me to go back through security and hunt for my phone. After finishing my flight, I was able to get on a computer and see that my phone had made it to a building out among the runways. That was a clear sign that an airport employee had found it, so I didn’t use the option to wipe the phone clean.

If your phone might be somewhere nearby, borrow someone’s phone and activate the “scream” feature on your phone.

Replace Your Phone

If your phone is stone dead or lost and not likely to be recovered soon, you need a new phone in a hurry.

You may also be able to replace your phone on favorable terms through your cell service provider. I use Google Fi. They will replace many accidentally damaged phones with the payment of a modest deductible.

Temporary Prepaid Smartphone

Because it can take multiple days to replace an expensive smartphone, you may want to buy a temporary phone.

Rather than buying a $19 “burner” flip phone that can only make and receive calls, consider a $39 prepaid smartphone. Now you can get a decent if not dazzling smartphone for $39.99 plus $15 or $30 for minutes and data. I like the AT&T prepaid plans. T-Mobile has a prepaid phone through Ultra Mobile for $69 and a base prepaid price of $3 per month. They also have one-day and seven-day passes.

Once your phone emergency is over, you can hang onto your temporary phone as a backup. Since it is prepaid, you can activate it much more quickly than going through the hassle of setting up a new phone and account from scratch. Eventually your backup phone will hit end-of-life, so check on its activation availability about once per year.

Computer Breach

A computer breach may be very easy or very hard to identify. All of the following are possible signs that a criminal has penetrated one or more of your computers or devices:

  • Your computer is locked and displays a ransom note.
  • Money is missing from an online account.
  • You can’t open your files.
  • People call or e-mail you about a strange e-mail received “from you.”
  • Your passwords don’t work (because your accounts are hacked).
  • Your antivirus icon disappeared from the taskbar notification area.
  • Unknown apps are installed on your computer or phone.
  • Friends receive social media invitations you didn’t send.
  • Random pop-ups appear while you are surfing the web.
  • New toolbars appear in your web browser.

Notify others. Let people in the office know that there is a suspected breach and that the Internet will be disconnected. But don’t delay in going ahead with the disconnection.

Let them know that the network will also be shut down while the incident is being examined. They should save any open documents and e-mails to avoid losing them.

Disconnect from the Internet. In case of a known or suspected breach, immediately disconnect the office from the Internet. It is best to prepare ahead of time with the technicians who connected your office to the Internet. Get their recommendation on how best to temporarily disconnect.

Methods of disconnecting from the Internet may include:

  • Turning off the modem/router.
  • Disconnecting a cable or phone line attached to the modem/router.
  • Turning off one or more wireless access points (hot spots) that support your WiFi connections.
  • A more advanced method is to log in to your modem/router and disable Internet access.

Shut down the server(s) and local network. Because it can be difficult to know whether a computer breach involves the spread of a virus or ransomware, it is best to shut down the server(s) and the local network.

Log everything you see and do. As you deal with the crisis, write down notes about what you observe and what steps you are taking. This information is essential for the security experts who will help with a breach.

Recovering from Software Failures

You sit down at your computer and wiggle the mouse or press a button to wake it up. Uh-oh. You can’t log in. Or you can start to log in, but the computer doesn’t cooperate.

If you haven’t checked your backups recently (everyone should, but few of us do), go to another computer. Log in to your cloud backup webpage or your network attached storage (NAS), or plug in your backup drive. Find an important, recent file and restore it.

If the restore fails, you have a new, urgent priority. You need to bring an expert on board to assess whether you have a good backup. Don’t go any further.

If the restore worked, you can start troubleshooting your computer with more confidence.

Restart your computer. Unless your computer is making strange noises, restarting your computer once or twice should be fine. Disconnect any USB drives from the computer first. They could cause a drive error message.

If you have trouble starting up your computer, try going into Safe Mode. To do that on a Windows machine, power up the computer and start pressing the F8 key (often above the 9 and 0 keys on your keyboard) every second. Your brand of computer might require pressing a different key. If your computer starts up fully in Safe Mode, at least you know that your hard drive is all right.

If you have important files on your computer that are not backed up, Safe Mode may allow you to copy them to an external drive for safekeeping.

Recovery options. Your computer has one or more built-in recovery options. Read up on them on another computer or your phone. Be careful. A recovery option should not destroy your user files, but it might. Be sure your files are backed up before launching a recovery option.

Mechanical Hard Drive Failures

You may have some advance warning of an impending mechanical failure. Weird sounds are a signal. Slow or erratic performance is, too. You can read descriptions of different sounds that bad hard drives make on the DataCent webpage.

Telltale error messages at startup can include:

  • Invalid system disk
  • Boot failure
  • Hard disk error
  • NT boot loader missing
  • Missing operating system

Messages such as these might also arise from an operating system issue or connected USB drive.

If you suspect a mechanical problem, ask yourself this: Am I absolutely sure that everything of value on this computer is backed up?

If the answer is no, the safest thing to do on your own is nothing. You may need to pay hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars to a data recovery company. If you begin troubleshooting on your own, trying free or paid utilities, you could further damage the already compromised drive that stores your precious files.

On the other hand, if you have confirmed that you have good backups and nothing of special value on the dead computer, go ahead with the steps in the next section.

Last Resorts for Computer Failures

Okay, so you can’t get your computer working again by restarting or using one of the recovery options. If you have a good backup and nothing on the computer you can’t afford to lose, go ahead with a drive image restore or a file and folder restore. If you don’t have a good backup and need important files from your computer, contact one of the data recovery companies listed below.

Drive image restore. If you have a recent drive image backup, you can restore your computer to exactly the way it was at the time of your recent backup or of an earlier backup. Keep in mind that all changes and new files you saved to the computer since the backup will be lost. That is why the recovery options above can be preferable.

For your drive image restore process to work, you typically need a recovery disk or flash drive that was created as one of the steps in setting up the drive image backups.

Both Veeam and Macrium Reflect offer free, relatively easy-to-use disk image software. They are both licensed for business use. Though they lack a few features, they are far from watered down in comparison to paid products.

File and folder restore. Most backup systems protect your documents and data files stored in folders. They don’t back up your operating system and software. The process for recovering with a file and folder backup is much slower that a drive image or virtual machine restore.

You will need your operating system installation media, your software installer files, and your software product keys. Were these stored only on your computer? Then you will need to recover the files containing that information first on another computer.

Data recovery companies. I took irreplaceable photographs and videos of a memorial service. When I tried to copy files from the memory card, nothing happened. What a sinking feeling! The companies I considered for data recovery were: My Hard Drive Died, Gillware Data Recovery, Kroll Ontrack, and DriveSavers. I chose My Hard Drive Died based on the reputation of their founder, who trains technicians and government agency personnel. They have a $50 minimum charge that I felt was worthwhile. Other companies offer a “no recovery, no charge” service.

Avoiding Pain and Misery

The article has focused on what to do after your technology crashes or goes wrong. Without the best advance preparation and precautions, the recovery process can be painful, miserable, and incomplete.

You will be far better off if you:

  • Print out and copy to another device the instructions and information you need to recover from tech disasters. Include a copy of this article.
  • Plan ahead for the loss or failure of your phone, computer, and other tech gear.
  • Install or have installed multiple, independent backups systems.
  • Test your existing backups. Can you recover a recent file?

Think through how to handle disruptions that come with relying on technology. Then implement solutions so that if something goes wrong, instead of “Oh no!” you will know what to do next.

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Wells H. Anderson’s company, SecureMyFirm, protects small firms and solo lawyers with affordable, ultra-secure cloud backups, antivirus, and anti-ransomware services. He also runs Active Practice LLC, customizing and troubleshooting practice management software. He is a member of the editorial boards of GPSolo magazine and the GPSolo eReport.

Published in GPSolo magazine, Volume 36, Number 6, November/December 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.