More often than not, you don’t.
I have a straw or two for you to grasp at, but I believe your data is gone.
For anyone who uses a USB flash drive, there are two extremely important lessons to learn here.
One lesson applies to everyone, flash-drive user or not.
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Recovering flash drive files
A previously working flash drive showing as RAW has probably reached its end of life. You can try data recovery tools, but success is unlikely. Two key lessons: flash drives wear out, and never store important data in only one place. Regular backups are critical.
One thing to try
It’s a long shot, but you might see if a tool like Recuva can recover anything from your flash drive. It’s designed to recover information from disks that have problems.
The issue is that Recuva works best with traditional hard disks and the ways in which they fail. Typically, much of the information remains on the platters and stands a chance of recovery.
If Recuva doesn’t work, then as an even longer shot, you could contact a data-recovery service. If they deal with flash drives at all, it’ll be expensive. Perhaps it’s worth it to you.
Let’s explore the two lessons to learn here.
Lesson #1: Flash drives wear out
Flash memory wears out the more you write to it.
How quickly it wears out depends on the specific flash drive. Like anything, there is a wide range of quality in flash memory-based drives. Cheap thumb drives wear out much more quickly than flash-memory-based SSDs. (Current SSDs typically outlive the computer on which they’re installed.)
Thumb drives are a guessing game. You can make a rough correlation with the cost of the device, but even that tends to change over time. Depending on usage and quality, we could be talking about a lifespan as short as months or as long as several years. I’ve seen extreme cases lasting as little as a few weeks, or in one case, even a few hours1.
You indicated that it’s been working well “for quite some time”. Depending on how you’re using it, how much you write to it, the quality of the device, and just how long “some time” is, I’m willing to bet that the device has simply reached the end of its useful life.
And as you’ve seen, when they fail, they can fail catastrophically. They just stop working, often appearing as “raw” drives. Just one bad sector — or even one bad bit — in the wrong place can render the entire thumb drive unrecoverable.
This leads to our next lesson… which may sound familiar.
#2: Never keep data in only one place
This applies to any kind of data storage: thumb drives, hard disks, SSDs, and even cloud storage.
If the data is in only one place, you could lose it all in an instant and without warning. Never ever keep important data in only one place.
Critical data on a single flash drive? You’re asking for trouble.
Family photos on a single hard disk? Plan on losing them all someday.
Your resume or thesis is kept only in a single online email account? It will disappear when you most need it2.
The obvious solution, of course, is to back up.
This can feel intimidating because backing up seems big and complicated and scary. It doesn’t have to be, but even if it were, it would still be too important to ignore.
Backing up can be as easy as making a periodic copy of your data on another device. (Emphasis on the periodic so your backup stays up to date.) It can also be as simple as installing and using appropriate backup software.
If your data is in only one place, it’s not backed up.
Having had a backup could have saved your data. As it is… I believe you’re out of luck.
Plan for any data-storage device or service to fail and to lose your data without warning. Back up your data so that such a failure — be it a thumb drive with a short lifespan, a hard drive that gets stolen, or a cloud storage account that gets hacked — would be an annoyance and nothing more.
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