How To: Recover deleted emails
Recovering deleted emails requires different tools to those needed to recover deleted files. Individual emails are not stored as separate files by most email programs. Usually, an entire mail folder such as your Inbox is one single file. So unless you have lost an entire folder, normal undelete software will not be much help to you. You need special email recovery software to help you recover deleted email.
Each mail folder used by your email program is a database file that contains all the emails. In the case of Microsoft Outlook the database file (PST file, for Personal STorage) also contains other data, such as your contacts and appointments.
Recommended email recovery software
Recovering deleted emails
When you delete an email in an email program, it is usually moved to a Deleted Items folder (as in Outlook Express) or similar. The Deleted Items folder is like a Recycle Bin for emails, and gives you a chance of restoring messages deleted in haste or in error. However, Outlook Express has an option to clear the contents of the Deleted Items folder whenever you close the program. If you enabled that setting, you'll be out of luck recovering email from Deleted Items unless you do it straight away.
When an email is moved from one folder to another, or to Deleted Items, what happens is that the message is copied to the destination folder and then deleted from the first. As with files on a hard drive, when a message is deleted from a folder it is not physically erased. The data is just marked as having been deleted, so the email program doesn't display it. The deleted email does not get overwritten until the mail program tidies up or compacts its database. There is therefore a window of opportunity of uncertain duration, during which it is possible to recover deleted emails intact.
Email recovery software needs to have detailed knowledge of the particular database format employed by each email program, in order to work its way through the database and extract the individual items or messages. Because of this, mail recovery products are often dedicated to single email products.
Another common problem with email software is that the mail folders become corrupt. In that case it may be impossible to access some messages even though they have not been deleted.
Email recovery software can also be used to repair such corrupt email folders. By working its way through the database in the same way that it does when recovering deleted mail messages, it may be able to read data that the email program cannot. This can then be exported into a new mail folder that can be used in place of the one that was corrupt.
To recover deleted emails and repair corrupted mail folders use these tools: