Last night my sister-in-law called me, just about in tears. "Something" had happened to her laptop--probably a virus, she guessed--but everything seemed to be gone: all her desktop and Start Menu icons, and, even scarier, all her data. It was like aliens had abducted her desktop.
Not aliens: hackers. Her system had indeed been infected by a virus, and it took me a few sweeps with Malwarebytes Anti-Malware (still the best recovery tool out there, IMHO) to get rid of it. (Here's a great malware-removal tutorial from PC World's Eric Geier.)
Just one problem: removing the virus hadn't restored all my sister-in-law's icons and data. The hard drive still showed nearly full, meaning nothing had actually been erased, but for all intents and purposes, the stuff was still MIA.
Fortunately, I found a utility that worked a seemingly major miracle: It brought everything back.
It's called UnHide. This free, self-contained utility is available via BleepingComputer courtesy of a user named Grinler. Just download and run the program, then be prepared to wait. On my system, it took 10-15 minutes to restore everything.
But restore everything it did: desktop icons, the Start Menu, and all the seemingly vanished data.
This was a first for me; I'd never encountered a virus that made almost the entire desktop disappear. Scary stuff!
If you find yourself in a similar situation, don't panic. I think it's the rare virus that actually does wipe out data. That said, this is probably a good time to remind you to make regular backups--not just to an external drive, but also to the cloud. Better safe than sorry!
Contributing Editor Rick Broida writes about business and consumer technology. Ask for help with your PC hassles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or try the treasure trove of helpful folks in the PC World Community Forums. Sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week.