Last night my sister-in-law called me, just about in tears. "Something" had happened to her laptop--probably a virus, she guessed--but everything seemed to be gone: all her desktop and Start Menu icons, and, even scarier, all her data. It was like aliens had abducted her desktop.
Not aliens: hackers. Her system had indeed been infected by a virus, and it took me a few sweeps with Malwarebytes Anti-Malware (still the best recovery tool out there, IMHO) to get rid of it. (Here's a great malware-removal tutorial from PC World's Eric Geier.)
Just one problem: removing the virus hadn't restored all my sister-in-law's icons and data. The hard drive still showed nearly full, meaning nothing had actually been erased, but for all intents and purposes, the stuff was still MIA.
Fortunately, I found a utility that worked a seemingly major miracle: It brought everything back.
It's called UnHide. This free, self-contained utility is available via BleepingComputer courtesy of a user named Grinler. Just download and run the program, then be prepared to wait. On my system, it took 10-15 minutes to restore everything.
But restore everything it did: desktop icons, the Start Menu, and all the seemingly vanished data.
This was a first for me; I'd never encountered a virus that made almost the entire desktop disappear. Scary stuff!
If you find yourself in a similar situation, don't panic. I think it's the rare virus that actually does wipe out data. That said, this is probably a good time to remind you to make regular backups--not just to an external drive, but also to the cloud. Better safe than sorry!