Undeletable File in Windows 7
December 1, 2012 5:11 PM   Subscribe

I have a phantom file on my desktop that I cannot delete. It's there and yet it does not exist. Help me get rid of it.

I'm using Windows 7. I downloaded a PDF onto my desktop, but something went wrong. The resulting file is 0 bytes and has no file type. When I try to delete it or move it to another folder, I get a pop-up saying:
Could not find this item

This is no longer located in C:\User\[redacted]\Desktop. Verify the item's location and try again.
And yet the file is there. I can look at its properties (though I cannot change them). If I click on it, Windows asks me what program I want to use to open it. If I navigate to the Desktop from a separate Window, the file is there. I've tried both refreshing the desktop and restarting the computer, to no avail.

What's going on and how can I fix it?
posted by dephlogisticated to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried the command prompt?
del c:\User\[redacted]\Desktop\your.pdf
posted by mkultra at 5:23 PM on December 1, 2012

posted by sanka at 5:26 PM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

open an explorer process, but do so as administrator-- that is, right-click on the shortcut and select "Open as administrator."

then try to delete the file.

Alternately, open a cmd prompt in the same way. Navigate to teh file-- it could be in
"c:\users\All Users"
c:\users\[your username or whatever user has been redacted]
try to delete it that way-- the command is del [filename]

If the filename has a space in it, use del "[filename]"
posted by Sunburnt at 5:34 PM on December 1, 2012

When I try to delete it via the command prompt, it says "The system cannot find the file specified".

Rebooting a second time didn't help either.

I have no option to open as an administrator—I assume because I'm already logged in as one.
posted by dephlogisticated at 5:45 PM on December 1, 2012

I'm not sure if running as an Admin will help, but FYI: I'm on Win7 Pro 64bit, if I click the Start button, then choose All Programs, then Accessories, then Right click on Command Prompt and click "Run as Administrator", the User Account Control warning comes up and if I accept it then I am in a black command window sitting at C:\Windows\System32. BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN RUNNING AS ADMIN.

Another possibility would be that the file is a "Reparse Point" or "Junction" which is a class of non-file elements under NTFS. This is very technical and is described in this Wiki article.

These are just thoughts. Maybe someone will reply later who knows for sure.
posted by forthright at 6:16 PM on December 1, 2012

I'd give Unlocker a try.
posted by sageleaf at 6:19 PM on December 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

That did it, sageleaf. The phantom has been exorcised. Thanks!
posted by dephlogisticated at 6:25 PM on December 1, 2012

Do you have reason to trust the source of that PDF? The format is pretty notorious for hosting exploits. Squirrelly behaviour involving a PDF from an untrusted source would have me reaching for the malware detection toolkit PDQ.
posted by flabdablet at 7:06 PM on December 1, 2012

FYI, although malware is certainly a possibility, other (innocent) reasons could include: the file was mistakenly marked by the system as being in-use, the file name contains an illegal character (for instance, File"Name.pdf cannot be deleted by Windows, because the double-quotes character is illegal in Windows filenames - but not in some other OS), and disk errors.

flabdablet's advice should probably be heeded, JIC.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:56 AM on December 4, 2012

other (innocent) reasons could include: the file was mistakenly marked by the system as being in-use

I've never seen Windows get that wrong; if the system marks a file as being in use, it is in use. And in the case of a PDF hosting a malware exploit, it might be in use by a process whose code is contained within the PDF itself.
posted by flabdablet at 10:16 PM on December 4, 2012

It's theoretically possible the file was malware, but I doubt it. Number one, it came from a trusted source. Number two, I never succeeded in actually opening the file; Windows didn't recognize it as a known file type. In fact, the file size was 0 bytes. Number three, I succeeding in downloading (and opening, and using) the same file afterwards with no difficulty, and none of my collegues (who downloaded the same file) reported any problems. Number four, there was a weird, subtle property of the file that suggested some kind of data corruption or error. I didn't mention it in the post because it's difficult to describe.

The text of file name was slightly messed up. By text, I mean the name of the file, as shown beneath the icon. The last two or three letters of the file name were not the standard Windows font/color that is used for every other file name. It looked as if the letters weren't quite rendered correctly. They were recognizable, but looked different.

When I used Unlocker, here's what happened: the program said that it couldn't find any conflicts (it might have used a different term) with the file. It then asked if I wanted to delete the file anyway. I said yes. It worked. Woo!

My working theory is that I simply happened into a weird, rare bug. The file didn't download correctly, and different parts of the Windows machinery disagreed on whether the file existed or not. In any case, the file is dead and gone. Thanks again for those who offered advice.
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:11 PM on December 4, 2012

flabdablet: I've never seen Windows get that wrong; if the system marks a file as being in use, it is in use.
I've seen it happen, and the "in use" designation lasted through a reboot. But no malware found by my up-to-date checkers.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:02 AM on December 5, 2012

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