This question is still a very hot topic for all owners of bitcoins. Even though most of the so-called bitcoin owners in reality don’t really own a bitcoin or parts of it, and only have an account on one of the many cryptocurrency exchanges around the world and the internet, some people do. It was (and sometimes still is) possible to buy a real bitcoin over the internet. All you need is a modern bitcoin wallet with a valid bitcoin address and your personal key.
In Switzerland for example there are many ATMs available where one can purchase or sell bitcoins by using a machine. There is even the possibility to buy bitcoins at a ticket machine of the Swiss railroad company SBB in Basel (northern part of Switzerland next to the German border). They use a service with another Swiss bitcoin exchange company. But the bitcoin users and buyers are frustrated: Buying or selling Bitcoins on an ATM takes a lot of time! Sometimes the transaction verification takes almost 30 minutes now and clients are waiting in line hoping that the process will end soon for them to take over the ATM. Currently 300,000 Bitcoin transactions are verified by the miners and written into the block chain each day. So the chain is getting longer and longer and longer.
If you have either a paper bitcoin wallet or a digital smartphone wallet with real Bitcoin codes you can use those in future purchases or transactions. It is also possible to buy “real” Bitcoins or other cryptocurrencies over the internet. This is what many early adopters did several years ago when the Bitcoin idea started: Many bought Bitcoins as a freak idea and forgot about it. Since they are now much higher in value than when they were bought in 2014, they want to save their holdings or take the Bitcoin money to make some purchases in the “real” world (Even though Bitcoins have made a significant drop by more than 50% in the last month, it is still a raise in value by 500% since 2014. This can be a lot of money that was presumably gained since they either bought the Bitcoins or maybe even mined them by themselves).
A lot of Bitcoins are lost or became inaccessible because they were erased, the owners forgot the private key or the password to open a modern wallet or even disposed a computer which contained some bitcoins. The reasons for a bitcoin loss varies greatly. According to a research by a digital forensics firm up to 4 million Bitcoins from the already mined 16.7 million Bitcoins could already be lost forever!
That is why the answer to the question on whether trying to recover Bitcoins by themselves or to consult an expert is a really tough question! Since we are talking about real money here, the honest answer to the question is: It depends.
It depends on how much value we are talking about in each specific case and what the reason is for the Bitcoin loss. Are we talking about a simple deletion or formatting of the disk drive (with an old Bitcoin wallet or private key on it) or is it because of a hardware failure? Had the laptop fallen from the desk and the hard disk has likely suffered a head crash or the SSD is not functioning or you can´t access any folders anymore because of the controller inside maybe gone broke?
When you search the internet for help on recovering Bitcoins there are many DIY methods, but each is dedicated to one specific problem that needs to be solved. There is not a single recovery solution available that covers all cases.
Bitcoin recovery by software
In many cases, owners of old bitcoins have comparatively easy problems: They deleted or formatted their hard disks where their wallet was stored on. As with normal data there are many software solutions available which are able to restore the data – if the hard disk space where the data was stored had not been in use for several years after that and the space wasn’t being overwritten by other content. If not there is a good chance that you can locate the old folder with the wallet.dat inside to recover. You can use many data recovery software solutions, but Ontrack EasyRecovery will most likely find the missing file. If it is not shown and you haven’t used the disk after the original loss, you should consult a data recovery expert. Additionally when a user simply forgot about their Bitcoin password there are a couple of tricks available to retrieve the missing phrase for using the wallet again. But first regaining the wallet.dat is king! But when the owner is using a 17 to 24 word long pass phrase however, this is a security item no one will be able to “crack.” Remembering that pass phrase is important, or all the money is lost. This passphrase is currently standard with modern Bitcoin wallets, which makes them more secure and from a data recovery perspective more challenging to recover.
Some people argue that the most secure version of a wallet is a so-called hardware wallet. In reality it is simply another – more secure and more expensive – USB stick that holds the wallet. When something goes wrong and you do not have an additional backup, you have a real nerve-racking problem as this Wired journalist described. However, when you backup your Bitcoins on a really cheap USB stick only and it gets broken, you definitely deserve your loss, as this happened to a man in Australia who mined several thousand Bitcoins in the early days. At least he should have made several backups or copies on different devices and locations to be safe. But this is not the end of what really can happen when you try to recover Bitcoins from an old Bitcoin software wallet with the aim to transfer it to a modern Bitcoin software client. This can be an odyssey as well as this amazing story shows.
There are many cases in which a user can definitely recover its lost Bitcoins themselves: When Bitcoins are lost because of accidental deletion or when the hard disk drive was formatted there is a good chance one can recover a wallet with the Bitcoins inside with a software recovery tool.
However, when something goes wrong here and the data gets corrupted, recovering Bitcoins will be a much harder challenge and should not be done by an ordinary user, but by dedicated and experienced data recovery experts such as the ones from Ontrack. They have special tools to recover data such as a whole wallet as well as a private key bit by bit.
The same is true when the Bitcoin loss is related to any hardware failure, getting in contact with them is the best choice to make. In many cases hardware failures can only be handled professionally in a dedicated clean room and data recovery lab with all the necessary software and hardware tools only the professionals have in their possession. With all that money at stake, it is better on let them do their job, than to lose everything with a stupid do-it-yourself-recovery that can lead to a permanent loss.
Picture copyright: Tim Reckmann / pixelio.de
Michael Nuncic is Marketing Communications Manager at the German Ontrack Data Recovery office in Böblingen for more than 5 years. Highly experienced in computer, network and software topics, he is a professional editor for blog and technical articles for almost 20 years now.