Probable File Loss - Need Help with Recovery and Understanding


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Jan 4, 2017
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TL/DR: I think we've lost a large number of files of medium importance. Is there anything I should be doing besides deleted file recovery on the hard drive?

I'm the resident tech expert, helping my sister who's usually in college across the country. She has unintentionally been using OneDrive for a while (unbeknownst to me) and asked for help finding some files in October. I found out she was using OneDrive, thought the directory structure was a bit odd, found the files, and moved on. Then when we were together at Thanksgiving a Windows upgrade (large?) installed itself and she again had a large number of missing files, that didn't turn up easily. After a laptop restart, I think some of it magically reappeared. At this point I was a little weirded out and encouraged her to not use OneDrive. She started moving stuff out. After she went back to college, she again noticed problems and we went into some detail and concluded that files truly seem to be missing. Over the course of that long phone call, I also found out she'd had login problems. Whether this was to a Microsoft account, a OneDrive account, or both is unclear to me. Also unclear is how many OneDrive accounts she may have --- and what files exactly are missing and how important they are. It looks like there's at least one account tied to her primary email address. Logging into that account had a lot in the recycle bin that she never placed there. Logging into her email showed multiple ignored emails about reducing space from 15GB? to 5GB. I believe there was more than 5GB in the recycle bin. I restored (via the web interface) what it let me. By the end of that call I was confident something's very wrong and we're missing files both online and locally. I had her turn off the laptop immediately until I could get physical access to it over Christmas break (now) and do whatever file recovery I can if it's not already too late (probably is). (No way that's happening over the phone!)

Random tidbits that may or may not be relevant. I'm trying to provide all the information I can.
- She never intended to be using OneDrive in the first place. I'm 95% confident there was an upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 10 (not sure if 8 was in between, but I think not), and internet searches tonight suggest that Windows 10 puts files saved to Documents into OneDrive by default. Certainly she never made an account intentionally.
- It's also unclear to me if there is a Microsoft account in use on the laptop or not for logging in. But I'd wager she just went ahead with the default Windows 10 upgrade setup process which encouraged its creation, so there probably is. (And that probably set OneDrive up too?)
- The first conversation in October was resolved by finding the files in "another" OneDrive folder. When I pressed for details it turned out there were too folders on her PC. 90% confident they were C:/Users/HerName/OneDrive and C:/Users/Public/OneDrive. The files she needed that day were in the folder she wasn't expecting.
- Something definitely happened around a significant update at Thanksgiving. Her desktop was all wrong when it came up and files were missing. I believe (50%?) that we checked both directories and stuff was missing. But after the first restart it cleared up. At least the desktop icons, and supposedly the files too. I wasn't concerned enough at the time to pin down exactly what was/wasn't right. The first time we noticed files were *nowhere* on the hard drive was after that update. (But I'm unsure if it was immediately after or two weeks later.)
- In the early December call, both OneDrive folders were nearly empty on her local PC. The only account I could access was also nearly empty on the web, but a lot was in the recycle bin. I restored as much as I could, but it seemed to cap at 5GB.
- She's received, and ignored, several emails notifying that OneDrive online storage space was being reduced. Sigh.
- Logging in tonight from the web interface and clicking "PCs" shows two different laptops with similar names: HerLaptopName and HerLaptopName-1. Obviously there's only ever been one, and again I think we skipped Windows 8. But I wonder if these were tied to the HerName and Public directories or before/after an update?
- Today the online recycle bin is empty. I understand it cleans out after 30 days, or less if you use a lot of space. (Good grief, way to be forgiving)
- She never deleted anything from OneDrive intentionally. But there were a few minutes at Thanksgiving of moving stuff out of one of the OneDrive folders into a separate Documents folder. (75% confident it was C:/Users/HerName/Documents, but I was unaware that the library defaulted to OneDrive, so 25% risk that it was C:/Users/HerName/OneDrive.) I'm not sure if the recycle bin files were from her moves or magic-Windows-upgrade-deletions. (It deleted my sticky notes non-metro app, so I no longer trust updates not to screw with my files. Not happy.)
- There's a small possibility of a second account being involved. The after-Thanksgiving call mentioned having login problems, and I think the password that eventually worked was different than the Thanksgiving password. (Being confused about her password is considerably more likely though.)
- It's unclear what's missing, though definitely some pictures that are not backed up. Certainly it was never clear, and the information long since gone, which files were tied to which folder and/or account, and which existed at which point in this process.
- I'm not turning this laptop on for anything. If the only copy of some files anywhere at this point is marked by Windows as free space, trying to recover those files first is the top priority. So unfortunately I can't check any settings (except what's visible on the web app).

So the best I can guess is that (1) she upgraded to Windows 10, (2) created a Microsoft account and got OneDrive access, (3) started using OneDrive by default accidentally, (4) sometimes was more logged in than at other times, (5) between that and Windows upgrades it changed its mind about which folder to use, (6) at Thanksgiving the major upgrade picked one and deleted the other (which maybe wasn't tied to an online account? is that possible?), (7) her moves ended up "deleting" the rest of it, and (8) since storage space had gone down we no longer had the space to recover everything from the online recycle bin, and (9) eventually cleared the recycle bin.

OK, so finally the actual question. In part I'm just confused and can't figure out what's going on. And that's very frustrating as the tech expert. I'm a programmer; give me the right logs and I can fix things. But I can't make sense of some of the design here and there's details on her workflow that I'm missing. Do you think there are multiple accounts? A local-only account? Can you make any sense of the two different folders? If Windows 8 and placeholder files were never involved, then does vanishing/reappearing/revanishing files make any sense?

And then more importantly how to restore things. If there's only the one account, I think we're probably screwed. The recycle bin online is empty and the drive itself is at 5GB/5GB. Is it worth trying to go through 15 levels of Microsoft support over two months to get told that they do/don't keep backups themselves for, say, 90 days, but only for, say, enterprise customers? I'll recover what I can from the hard drive... if it wasn't put only on the cloud months ago and long since reclaimed as free space.

Needless to say we won't be using OneDrive after this. I no longer trust its decision making for myself, let alone for those who aren't really paying attention to what the computer is doing and with questionable organization skills!

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