I can help answer some of those questions.
How many “labs” in the U.S. would you consider are “the very best” — most successful at recovery, highest integrity? Who are the best of the best and why?
That's like asking "how many hospitals in the U.S are the 'very best'". The answer is....NONE!!!! All will probably have some good doctors all some will have some D- idiot doctors. Data recovery companies are the same way. Most larger companies will have some very good data recovery engineers, but they've likely got some lower level techs working there too who make amateur mistakes. The larger the company, the more low level staff they'll need to employ and often this actually negatively impacts their level of success. With a smaller to mid-sized company, it's much more likely that the top guy will actually look at your case at some point. Companies get too big at a certain point and begin relying on the lower level guys to weed out cases they assume to be "unrecoverable". But, they can be and often are wrong about this.
I've personally recovered drives which had been previously declared "unrecoverable" by the "best" companies in the world (including DriveSavers). Yet, I'd never use the term "best" to describe my lab or any other. It all comes down to who's more knowledgeable of a certain type of drive, failure, case, whatever. In the cases I solved that they couldn't, it was because I knew things that their technician who worked on that case obviously didn't understand. In all possibility, there have been cases I couldn't handle which someone else might be able to. On rare occasion, I've even referred cases to a particular lab because I knew they had developed a method no one else had yet.
Think about this. If you're getting surgery, there's ultimately only one guy holding the scalpel. So would you rather have the best surgeon you can find or the biggest best-equipped hospital? Most people would probably pick the better surgeon knowing that the marginal difference in hospital equipment isn't likely to be the life and death factor.
Data recovery is much the same way. Typically only one guy will work on it in the end, so you want to be sure it's a company that's got qualified technical staff and a good record.
Are there labs that are more technologically advanced? Or is it more about better processes? Or are the solutions/tools/methods mostly ubiquitous?
Generally speaking, all serious labs will have pretty much the same equipment. I've watched the YouTube videos of these other companies and we all are using pretty much the same tech. These days, most of the serious data recovery equipment is coming out of Russia and that's what we all use. I communicate daily with techs from other labs, and I know most of us (who do this full time) use the same equipment. But, equipment isn't a very good measure of success really. I know guys who've got more tools than I have but can't accomplish half the cases I do because they don't have any skilled techs who really have a mastery of the trade.
In what ways can consumers/businesses be getting ripped off?
Now, this is a great question. There's a lot of ways people get ripped off. Half the data recovery companies out there were started by guys who had a legitimate interest in working on failed storage and are really into it because the like the work and enjoy helping people get data back. The other half of the companies were started by people who only saw dollar signs and realized that people will pay anything to get their data back. I've literally heard of companies demanding huge payouts and holding people's HDD and/or data hostage if they refused to pay up. These clowns probably thought data recovery would be an easy push-button job once they had the right equipment. Once they realized they weren't smart enough or driven enough to really succeed, they turn to scamming people who's recovery cases were probably really simple, to begin with.
Here's a good example of one such company: https://www.data-medics.com/forum/irvine-california-beware-if-you-re-in-need-of-data-recovery-t2073.html
What’s a typical initial and final cost? Do you get more for your money?
Different labs are going to price things differently. Some prefer to quote really high on the tougher cases (so as to scare them away) and price themselves more competitively on the easier cases. Other labs actually enjoy taking on the tough cases and so they spread out the profit margins across the different tier levels.
I know for us, our pricing for sub 2Tb drives that have failed ranges from $450 to around $800 typically. Only in rare cases is it much higher than that. I know of other companies who's prices range from $300 up to $1300 so they're cheaper on the low end and more expensive on the high end. Then you've got you large companies who employ twice as many sales people as technical staff. Those guys price from $800 (for non-hardware related logical failure) up to around $3000. These are usually the companies who advertise themselves as "The Best" or "The Leader" in data recovery (even though they definitely aren't). The labs I would classify as the "best" are often just small business with a few really skilled techs and a true focus on their customers instead of on the bottom line of profit.
My local Micro Center (or whatever other electronics stores) will take a HDD in for recovery and they ship them out to a lab. Is this a good/bad route to take and why? Who are they shipping them to for recovery?
They are shipping them out to DataTech Labs (who probably gives them a discount) and then just marking up the price to you. I've heard references to people getting quotes in the $1,600 range from them, so definitely not the most cost-effective option. Incidentally, I just got in a drive this week which had previously been to them and they couldn't recover it. I'm not sure yet if it's one I'll be able to recover, but the fingerprint grease I found on the top platter when we opened it up in our clean room certainly isn't going to help our efforts. Maybe they just got careless while putting it back together after giving up, I don't know. All I know is I'd never let a drive leave my office looking like that just in case it ends up at another place.
Rough estimate, spinning hard drives that have failed... what percentage that come in are not recoverable at all?
I'd estimate that 85-90% of customers who come directly to a good lab will get a good recovery. Some drives do just tend to fail catastrophically. For example in recent months we've been seeing a ton of Seagate 7200.11 series drives show up that have deep gouges on the platters from the read/write head sliders just popping off, leaving a metal point scraping the surface. So these have no hope that anyone will recover them.
Now, it is definitely the case that prior attempts can hinder the chances of getting the data recovered. I've got a few computer shops who send in cases and I'd estimate that only about 60% of their cases are recoverable. The reason is because they try every stupid YouTube trick they can find before they finally give up and send it in to an actual professional. So by the time we get the drive it's spent a night in the freezer, had chkdsk run a dozen times, had five different programs tried on it, been hit against the desk(yes some guys actually think this can fix a drive), and then finally had a program like SpinRite or some other HDD refurbishing program finish it off completely.
In my opinion, amateur attempts at data recovery are probably the #1 cause of permanent data loss.
If I send my HDD off to the “wrong” company, can they damage a recoverable HDD into making it unrecoverable? Is it common for one lab to be unable to recover the data that a follow up lab can?
Yes, in fact, some companies will do this intentionally if their overpriced quote is rejected. I've got one drive sitting here that had previously been at a lab that quoted around $2000 for what likely should have been a $450 recovery. However, when the customer rejected their outrageous quote, they zero filled the adaptive ROM code of the PCB. Since this was a Seagate F3 series hard drive, that ROM code is unique to each individual drive and rebuilding it is nearly impossible. No doubt they've got a backup of the ROM so they can still perform the recovery if the customer ever comes back, but no one else can possibly recover it w/o that bit of code. It's very well placed sabotage. Currently my customer's lawyer is trying to legally force them to hand over the backup of the ROM they zeroed out.
Edited by DataMedic, 22 May 2018 - 04:25 PM.