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Smartphone ‘whoops!’ is painful and expensive

As smartphones increase in popularity, so does the risk of losing the data if the device is dropped or damaged.  Data recovery firms  are standing by, ready to take your call — if you can make one, that is.
Image: Damaged iPhone
This iPhone was dropped 26 stories during a domestic dispute. A data-recovery company was able to salvage the information on the device.Courtesy of DriveSavers

Hope that you never have this experience: You get in a fight with your spouse or partner, they fling your smartphone 26 stories down a high-rise building's garbage chute and you pray that the data on that phone survives, even if the device itself does not.

But that's exactly what happened to one husband in a major metropolitan area whose wife was furious with certain photos on his iPhone. "It came to us all smashed up, but we got the pictures back and everything else," said John Christopher, senior data recovery engineer for DriveSavers, which recovers data from all media, but also specializes in iPhones.

The domestic drama is unusual, but other potentially smartphone-destroying situations — devices dropped in toilets (yes, toilets), on sidewalks, in puddles and pools — are not. "More than 50 percent of the phones we see are water damaged," said Tal Rubin, CEO of

As smartphones like the iPhone and others increase in popularity, so does the risk of losing the data that users are constantly adding to these pocketable mini-computers. And data recovery firms — which deal with everything from damaged computer hard drives to camera memory cards, are standing by, ready to take your call — if you can make one, that is.

It can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,500 to have a professional take apart a smartphone and attempt to recover the information.

"All of our (price) quotes are based on our success in recovering data," said Christopher. "Typically, lower-end quotes mean that for us, the recovery of the data wasn't as successful as it could have been. We might have been able to get back only a few critical files vs. everything. The reality is, folks who are lucky to get everything back are more likely to pay the middle to the high end of the price quote."

DriveSavers charges between $600 to $1,900 for one- to two-day service to "recover an iPhone of any capacity, whether it's an 8-GB model or the new 32-GB iPhone 3GS," said Christopher. "Economy" service, which takes longer than two days, costs between $500 and $1,400.

Rubin said his company's services start at "about $250," and can go up to $1,700 "and in some extreme cases can be more."

There have been enough customers with dropped or damaged smartphones that Rubin's company has gone from only working on phones that have a portable memory chip known as a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card or that have an external memory card to those that do not have removable memory chips.

"Now we are capable of recovering data from the actual memory chip on the phone itself," Rubin said. "We have the capability to reverse engineer the memory module on the smartphone, basically take it apart, take out the memory module and reverse engineer the data structure" and extract the owner's personal information.

The data is then made available online to the owner only. DriveSavers also has a similar service, or can send the customer a DVD with the information from the phone.

Fragile, but no moving parts
"In one way, I would say it's almost easier to recover data from a smartphone than from a (computer) hard drive," Christopher said. "A smartphone does not have any moving parts, versus a regular hard disk that has an armature with read-write heads that float over the hard disk platter itself."

Touchscreen-only smartphones — such as the iPhone or the BlackBerry Storm — are more susceptible to damage because if they're dropped and the screen cracks or breaks, "there's no access, you can't get to your data," he said.

Water damage also is a common problem, and often from the water closet. That doesn't speak well for phone users, but that's another story. "We see lots of phones that are dropped in the toilet or into puddles of water," Christopher said.

"Water damage is probably harder to deal with than, say, physical damage to the phone," he said. "That's because of the corrosion that can build up inside the device itself, which starts breaking down all the electronic components. And if it's salt water, that makes it even worse because it's more corrosive."

Rubin has had one customer who dropped a smartphone into the Amazon River, and many others whose devices were damaged from shower steam.

Vacations and business trips seem to be the times when the technology gods taunt smartphone users. It's a good idea to do a computer backup of what's on the phone before leaving home, especially if you're opting not to bring a computer with you.

"Some of our iPhone customers will be away from home, they won't bring a laptop (for backing up their information) and they'll use their iPhones to take pictures, add new contacts, take notes on the phone, put things on the calendar — and if the phone gets damaged physically on the way back, that's when they lose their data and come to us," Christopher said.

Back up your stuff
Many smartphone users are aware they should frequently back up their smartphone data to their computers, an external memory card or even a Web site. But the reality is different, said Rubin.

"The people that do regular backups work for companies where their smartphones are being synchronized with Microsoft Exchange or with BlackBerry Enterprise Server, or with other enterprise software," he said. When it comes to home users, they "usually won't do it on a daily basis," he said.

If you feel daily backups might be impractical, consider putting yourself on a weekly schedule to do so, or even every other week. Otherwise, prepare for the pain of lost contacts, photos and other personal information when you least expect it.

"All of a sudden, it happens, and there you are," said Dyan Parker of "It's very similar to people thinking that they're never going to be ill. Then they're surprised, and suddenly they're looking for a surgeon."

The New York-based company "models our service after a medical office," she said. "When people call in, we're very aware that this is very traumatic for most customers when they lose their data."

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