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updated 3/14/2011 2:14:10 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:14:10

Few things in life can create as much frustration or panic as a dying hard drive. Just consider what's stored on the typical home computer -- tax and financial records, thousands of photos, that huge project for your child’s history class and other irreplaceable documents.

But the hard drive isn’t the only cause of lost data. Every year thousands of laptops are lost, stolen or forgotten at airport-security checkpoints. Vital documents saved on flash drives accidentally get erased.

The bottom line is that as computing becomes more mobile, it gets easier to lose data – and yet most of us don’t have a computer disaster-recovery plan in place.

Why bother having such a plan? It’s simple, said Jennifer Walzer, CEO of Backup My Info!, a New York City-based online backup service.

“The chance that your computer will fail is 100 percent guaranteed,” said Walzer. “It’s just a matter of when it will happen.”

Walzer recommends making a list of all of the important files you want protected. Once you know what they are and how much storage space they take up, it’s time to consider the available backup methods.

“There are many options for people who want to protect their data. Some are very basic, like an external hard drive, while others are more sophisticated, such as a redundant, off-site data center,” said Todd Esplin of Seattle-based Mozy, one of the best-known online backup services.

“Disaster-recovery solutions are akin to insurance plans,” said Esplin. “The best solution really depends on the level of protection each person feels like they need.”

The key elements and questions to consider when making a solid backup plan include:

Security: Is that data secure when and where it's currently being stored, and will it be more or less so after it's backed up to the storage site?

Automation: Can the backup process be automated?

Accessibility: Can I easily access my backed-up data when I need it?

Overall Cost: Will the cost allow me to continue to back up my data in the long run?

Online backup services blend the higher-level protection of off-site storage, normally affordable only to corporations, with the affordability and automation of basic, local external hard drives.

Other services such as Boca Raton, Fla.-based Lock Your Docs!, a partner of Backup My Info!, provide a secure online lockbox to which you can upload important documents -- financial insurance information, credit-card numbers, passports, drivers licenses -- and access them from anywhere.

The services aren’t a budget-breaker, either, as most plans cost $100 or less per year.

Not ready to shell out for an online service? A simpler option is to regularly back up your essential data to one or more external hard drives or writeable DVDs. But you’ll have to either get software that performs regular backups, or remind yourself to do it manually.

It’s also best to keep a backup copy away from home, for example at work, in case of fire, flood or other unforeseen event.

And what if disaster does happen? With a properly executed plan, recovery is possible, says David Friend, CEO and co-founder of Boston-based online-backup industry leader Carbonite.

“If you have backed up your data online, it’s easy to recover it through a few steps that restore your files to the exact places they belong on your computer,” explained Friend. “All you need is your computer and an Internet connection.”

If you don’t have a backup plan in place, however, it’s a different story. Lost files aren’t always recoverable, especially if the computer was lost or stolen. Extracting data from a dead hard drive can cost thousands of dollars.

“Now that protection technologies and Internet access are easily accessible for online backup services (meaning anyone can sign up for a backup service online), anyone who has valuable data should be backing it up,” said Mozy’s Esplin. “For about the same price as a lunch, you can protect your data for an entire month.”

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