They call in hysterical; some can barely breathe. Others are so overcome they choke on their words. But Nikki Stange knows what to do. "Tell me about your loss," she says in a velvety voice. "Try to talk it through."

This is not a suicide-prevention hot line. Stange, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Colorado­Boulder, is one of a new breed of counselors who work with people suffering data loss. Each day, from nine to five, she answers incoming calls for DriveSavers, a data-recovery company based in Novato, Calif.

Say you haven't backed up your hard drive since you bought your computer. Your checkbook, Rolodex, and entire life schedule are on your PC, and one day the hard drive just dies. In a panic you call DriveSavers and get Stange. She listens to your tale of woe. Maybe she instructs you to take deep breaths or tells you stories of data recovered from worse crashes than yours. Your head clears. You start to feel hopeful. You smile, put down the rope, and climb off the chair.

Stange's take on data backup is reminiscent of safe-sex rhetoric. "It's human nature not to back up data," she says. "We know we should do it. We know it's illogical not to. But we just think that data loss is something that happens to the other guy."

Since Stange began her over-the-phone therapy more than five years ago, she's collected some harrowing stories of what people will do to recover data. One is about a husband-and-wife juggling team who worked a cruise boat on the Amazon. When the boat sank, so did the couple's laptop, which held all their personal and business financial data. The wife did what any other sane computer user would do: she rented scuba gear, swam through the underwater hallways and stairways of the submerged ship, and reclaimed her laptop, along with her wedding ring and her contact lenses, from the murky depths. Stange was called on to ease the fears of the waterlogged woman, and in a matter of weeks, DriveSavers had successfully recovered all the data.

"Most people don't realize how dependent they've become on their computers until they crash," says Stange. "It's like losing electricity. I'm there to offer them a little bit of light."