Word Recovery

I’ve come across a few Word documents that have got corrupted, so I get an error message when I try to open them:

Word error

The error message suggests a couple of methods that might work. Failing that, you can go back to an older version of the file, e.g. from a backup tape. I recommend Undelete Server for situations like this: any time someone modifies/deletes a file on a network drive, the old version goes into the Recovery Bin.

However, what happens if the built-in methods don’t work, and you don’t have an older copy of the file? There are 3rd party tools which claim to help with this, so I recently looked at SysTools Word Recovery. Unfortunately, it didn’t work as promised, so I had to claim a refund through PayPal. I’m not sure whether they’re running a scam or whether they’re simply incompetent, but either way I strongly recommend that you avoid them.

SysTools have several websites:

Surprisingly, the first two actually look different; they aren’t simply two different domain names for the same site. More generally, the company offer similar products for other office applications, e.g. email conversion and database recovery. Their grammar is a bit iffy, with sentences like:
“Even the MS Word is a rich with feature application the corruption can attack the word documents in form of”
Presumably they don’t speak English as their first language, but that’s not necessarily a problem. If this was an email claiming to be from my bank then I’d be suspicious, but I’m willing to accept that there are talented programmers from other countries who may not have the budget to hire translators, and I can still get the gist of what they’re saying.

They offer a free demo of the software: this will show you a paragraph from the Word document, to prove that they can recover it before you pay them any money. That’s a good tactic, and I’ve seen the same thing done on websites that will “crack” the password on Word documents. I installed the demo, tried it on a particular document, and it did indeed display a legible paragraph. That all looked encouraging, so I paid $45 for the full version of the software.

According to their support website:

Everytime you purchase SysTools Products, our support staff will send an email containing download Link & activation code.

Activation Code and Download link to the software will be delivered immediately after your payment into the provided email address. If you don’t receive the Activation Code with in 30 minutes of the purchase then check your JUNK or SPAM folder for our email. But still you are unable to find the email, please drop us an email at support@systoolsgroup.com

I made the payment at 22:03 on Sun 5th June. By 22:57, there was no sign of any email. I checked my spam folder as they advised; since I run my own mail server, I also checked the logs on that, and there was no record of any incoming emails from them. So, I emailed them for help. They replied at 03:23 on Mon 6th June, giving me a link to download the software.

That’s about 5½ hours, which is a reasonable turnaround time for a manual process, i.e. it’s quite good that they have support staff working overnight to deal with emails. On the other hand, this demonstrates that they don’t have an automated process in place. In fact, I’m not even sure whether it would be possible. The order page on their website sent me to PayPal, and that asked me for a delivery address (which is irrelevant here). However, I didn’t enter my email address at any point. PayPal already know my address, since it doubles up as my login, but I don’t know whether they send it to the seller. The email receipt that I got from PayPal only included my name and address. So, there may be a fundamental problem with the ordering process rather than the email-bot not working.

Looking at other demo software, there’s typically a menu option to enter a product code. Once you put that in, you “unlock” the full functionality. In this case, I had to uninstall the demo version and then install the full version. That’s a bit of a faff, but I can live with that; the real problem is that the code base seems to be significantly different.

When I ran the full version, nothing (visible) happened. I ran Task Manager, and saw that the process (RepairDocs.exe) would appear and then immediately disappear. I checked the Application log in Event Viewer, and each time I ran the program I got Application Error 1000:

Faulting application name: RepairDocs.exe, version:, time stamp: 0x478bccb5
Faulting module name: unknown, version:, time stamp: 0x00000000
Exception code: 0xc0000005
Fault offset: 0x001d4dc0
Faulting process id: 0x624
Faulting application start time: 0x01cc243605263b70
Faulting application path: C:\Program Files\SysTools Word Recovery\RepairDocs.exe
Faulting module path: unknown
Report Id: 430be757-9029-11e0-a91b-002354a59678

I tried rebooting the PC, and running the program elevated (i.e. “run as administrator”), but that didn’t make any difference. So, I sent them an email at 11:45 on Mon 6th June asking for help. At this point I was getting suspicious, so I said that if they couldn’t supply a working copy of the software then I wanted a refund. They didn’t reply.

According to PayPal, you can open a dispute within 45 days of payment. However: “You must wait 7 days to allow for delivery before opening a dispute for an item not received.” That seemed like the most applicable category here, since they hadn’t delivered a working copy of the software. So, I opened a dispute on Tue 14th June, which automatically sent a message to the seller (SysTools). If I wanted to escalate the dispute to a claim, the deadline was Mon 4th July.

I had a reply from SysTools on Wed 29th June, refusing a refund. Instead, they said that if I emailed them the Word document then they would convert it for me. I wasn’t satisfied with that: “That may be a useful service to offer people, which you could legitimately charge money for. However, it’s not what I paid for. If you can’t provide a working copy of the software then I would like a refund.” The key point of buying a licence for the software is that I should be able to repair as many documents as I like (now and in the future) rather than just repairing one particular document right now.

Being cynical, I have to wonder whether they deliberately waited that long to reply in the hope that I’d miss the PayPal deadline. In other words, if I had sent them the Word document, would they have been “busy working on it” until Tue 5th July, at which point it would be too late for me to escalate the dispute? I don’t know, and that may be an unfair suggestion, but I’m not going to rule it out.

I waited until Sun 3rd July, then escalated the dispute to a claim. PayPal reviewed the case, and sent me an email on Wed 6th July: “Thank you for your cooperation with this case. We’ve decided in your favour and will issue you a refund.” So, that’s good news, and I’m glad that the (PayPal) system works.

Regarding the software itself, I was originally suspicious because the main exe file was so small (only 204 kb). Since it failed silently, that made me wonder whether it was simply a shell that was never intended to do anything. However, I now think that there’s a different issue. Looking at the application files, the dates vary between the full version and the demo version:

Demo Full
Main exe SysToolsDOCRecovery.exe
Support files osenxpsuite2009.dll

My home PC has Windows 7 (released in 2009) and Office 2010 (released in 2010). So, maybe the demo version has been updated to handle that and the full version hasn’t? I’d be a lot happier with the software if it failed with a sensible error message, e.g. “This version of Windows isn’t supported.” I’d still ask for a refund, since their website claims that the software works on Windows 7 (and with Word 2010), but I would treat that as a genuine mistake rather than a deliberate deception. As it stands, I can’t think of any legitimate reason why they’d update the demo version and not the full version. At best, it’s apathy, but the result is “bait and switch”, i.e. I’m evaluating one application and then paying for something different.

As for the demo version, the sample paragraph from the corrupt document may be misleading. If I open the Word document in Notepad, I can see some human readable text (and a lot of binary), so they may simply be pulling out that text and never even attempting to recover the binary.

If this isn’t a scam, then it’s sad that they’re shooting themselves in the foot. If this had worked for me, I would have been happy to buy a business licence for my workplace, and recommend it to other people. As it stands, though, you shouldn’t go anywhere near them.

If anyone has any tips for legitimate 3rd party tools, I’d be happy to hear them.

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