USB memory sticks are great devices for storing files and sharing data across different computers. These flash memory devices offer far greater capacities than floppy disks ever could – and they’re becoming ever-cheaper too. Indeed, 16GB sticks, offering storage equivalent to 11,000 floppy disks, can be bought for less than a fiver from Amazon.
But, like all technology, USB sticks can fail every now and again. In worst-case scenarios, this can mean losing everything you had stored. As such, it’s always advisable to keep files stored somewhere else as well to be extra safe. If you’re a BT Broadband customer, you can store your files for free on BT Cloud.
[Read more: 6 of the best storage devices]
If you've still got precious files you want to recover on your USB memory stick, you should try some of these solutions first.
But if your computer stops recognising a USB memory stick, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ready to be binned. Have a go at these solutions below before giving up on it for good. Please note, we've used Windows 7 here but the steps are relatively the same for Windows 10.
Tip 1: Try a different USB port
It might seem obvious, but the first thing to try is inserting the stick into another USB port on your PC.
Over time, USB ports can get dirty and worn, so there’s a chance that the issue actually lies with the port where you insert your USB stick and not the stick itself.
[Read more: Tired of waiting to transfer files from one device to another? USB 3.0 is the answer]
Tip 2: Do you need to update the driver?
Again, the problem may actually be with your PC, not the USB device itself. See if a different computer recognises your stick. If it does, it could mean your main machine needs to download a new driver.
To check for a new driver, go to Computer, right click on your USB’s icon and click on Properties.
Go to the Hardware tab and find General USB Flash Disk USB Device. Select it and click the Properties button below.
In the next pop-up, click the Change settings button.
Another pop-up will appear – go to the Driver tab and click the Update Driver… button.
Next, select the first option Search automatically for updated driver software and follow the instructions.
Tip 3: Error-checking
Windows may be able to detect the error with your USB stick.
You can do this by right clicking on the USB icon in Computer and clicking on Properties.
Go to the Tools tab and under error-checking click Check now…
A pop-up box will appear. Ensure both boxes are ticked and click the Start button.
If Windows is able to identify the problem, follow the instructions provided.
[Read more: Give your hard drive a health check]
Tip 4: Format the USB stick
The final step you can try is formatting the USB stick, but this will delete everything.
To do this, go to Computer, right click on the USB stick icon and click on Format.
In the pop-up box, click the Start button, followed by OK.
If the formatting went ahead successfully, a new pop-up message will appear saying: ‘Format Complete’. You can click the OK button and see whether the USB stick works again.
Tip 5: Create a new simple volume
Another way you could restart your USB stick is by using Windows Disk Management, which again wipes the content.
To do this, search ‘disk management’ in the Start Menu and click on Create and format hard disk partitions.
Here, you should see your USB under Disk 1. Right click and go to Properties to check that you have selected the correct drive. The pop-up box should say ‘General USB Flash Disk USB Device’ if you have the correct driver selected.
If it does, exit this window and right click on the diagonally-striped box which should say ‘Unallocated’ in the centre. Click New Simple Volume…
In the pop-up box, click the Next button.
On the subsequent screen, ensure that the simple volume size in MB matches the maximum disk space in MB, and click the Next button.
Click Next again twice, followed by Finish.
If this works, your USB stick should be accessible.
[Read more: Don't lose your stuff - How to back up your smartphone and tablet]
I found a USB stick in the street the other day. This is not the first thumb drive I have found, and apparently this is not an unusual event, as some reports indicate that dry cleaners find thousands of them (along with some more unsavory items) each year.
These reports are consistent with news stories about unusual items left in the back of taxis, including some 190,000 phones that are left in the back of London taxis every year. In total, Consumer Reports indicates that over one million phones were lost in 2013.
It seems that we are not very good at holding onto our devices. While it is fairly easy to return a lost phone to its owner, the same is not true with a USB stick.
The owner of a lost phone will usually call the phone to see who found it. By contrast, the only way to possibly locate the owner of a found thumb drive is to plug it into a computer and see if there are any clues in its contents, as many folks who carry USB sticks do not encrypt the contents, meaning that the information on those devices is readily accessible.
Unfortunately, this is a very dangerous method, as USB sticks may contain malware.
In the now famous “Stuxnet” case, infected USB sticks were purposely dropped in a parking lot with the hopes that an employee of the nearby factory would plug it into a computer to damage the machinery – this ploy was very successful.
The ability to write malware code onto USB sticks is not a new phenomenon, and the “USB drop” technique is used by some security assessment companies to test staff awareness. There is even a smartly priced commercially available version of a USB onto which one can load customized code.
What should you do if you find a USB stick and you want to locate the owner?
Unfortunately, the only safe way to view the contents is to use a machine that will not allow the writing of any files to a hard drive. A computer without a hard drive could be booted with a bootable DVD of a Linux distribution. This would allow a person to mount the USB stick to try to find clues to locate the owner.
As you can see, this “safe technique” is far beyond the technical understanding of the average person, and it is best left to a professional.
The best thing to do with a found USB stick is to turn it over to the nearest lost and found.
Our general tendency is towards helping others; however, in the case of a found USB stick, please resist the urge to plug it into a computer to view the contents.
Title image courtesy of ShutterStock