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user account disapeared! 😮  


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a friend of mine has an 8ish year old mac book pro running El Captain I think. It's been working more or less fine but slow (spinning hard drive, so big surprise there) but it's been consistent. This morning it froze and she had to power it off. When she rebooted her user account is gone. It doesn't show up on the login screen and when she logs in to her test account it is also missing from the list of accounts.
The user folder for that account seems to be intact. any thoughts about how to fix this/what's going on?
I don't have hands on the machine - I'm working with her by phone across the country.
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4 Answers

smartmontools is my go to, also on GitHub.

You know I am no expert when it comes to SMART, I will be honest … I am not brimming with knowledge on this. SMART is built into the drive and it reports it's own diagnosis to Disk Utility so for the vast majority of users they have this tool and they will know if they should or shouldn't trust a drive (something you can't trust).

What I've heard, and I stress 'heard', is that DU displays a SMART failure when it's already too late. In other words, the symptoms are what users should be educated on first and foremost. I wish DU reported SMART as "failing" but maybe it does I don't know.

In any event, Andrew's reported issue should have a strong lean towards a potentially failing drive and with that a backup should be first and foremost, definitely before any troubleshooting which can only further stress the drive but this was only vaguely reported other than the spinning beachball that persisted long enough to force a power button shutdown.

PS, oh I missed that link to the Eclectic Light Company. They never cease to amaze. I will take a look at it — thanks for the link.

This post was modified 2 years ago by Alex Santos

This might be a bit tricky to solve remotely.....

The easiest thing for her to try is booting into Safe Mode which checks the state of the hard drive and also flushes many of the caches. Note that if this works it might not be evident until the normal reboot. I've pasted generic steps below.

I'd certainly be concerned about the state of the hard drive - if it is 8 years old it'd be a prime candidate for being close to failure. Checking its SMART status before doing anything further would be advisable. Whether there is any other disk corruption would be hard to know so if a full recent backup is available doing a full restore from that might be the way to go.

Otherwise, there are steps that might work but which I probably wouldn't want to do via phone such as: repairing permissions on that user folder, resetting user database, recreating same user ID & associating with existing folder....

Safe Mode restart

  • Shut down the computer.
  • Press the power button to start the Mac and immediately afterwards press and hold down the left Shift key until you see a progress bar or the Apple logo.
  • Your Mac will do some cleanup steps and show a progress bar. This may take up to half an hour - let it run even if the progress bar doesn't seem to move.
  • This should end up at the login screen with "Safe Mode" written in red at top right. If not, then Safe Mode didn't engage, shut down & try the procedure again.
  • Login to any available account (you're still in "Safe Mode" so it may look a little different including a flickering screen, don't panic!) but don't start any apps or programs.
  • Leave the Mac like that for 5 minutes to "settle down".
  • Shutdown and restart normally. (This restart step is important - don't forget to do it!)

• Note: This cleanup procedure deletes various "cache" files used by the operating system and apps. The next time they run they may have to recreate those cache files - so it is normal for the first restart of the Mac and the first launch of any app after a Safe Mode reset to take longer than normal. 


  we'll try the safe mode reboot and then see.  I'm ok with doing fairly advanced things remotely, the person with the computer is a geek, just doesn't know much about macs... but the terminal won't scare her.  I'll post back here when I know the results of the safe boot.


Use Internet Recovery to run Disk Utility on the hard drive. Some of the symptoms described, spinning beach ball for lengthy periods suggests you run disk utility. It will fix what it finds. It doesn't fix every type of problem but it can fix some bad ones and you can easily probe SMART status, it displays it.

Safe mode does attempt to repair directory issues so it's all good — do ask your friend to trigger it.

Seeing that she can login to the Test account (smart to have one by the way, hope it's an admin account) and that she sees the other user account in /Users/ is a good thing. NOTE: Go to System Preferences while in the Test account and then Users and Groups, is her account listed? If not yet you see it in /Users/ then create a new user account and give the new user the exact same name as the previous user and the same password, The Users and Groups system preference will warn you that a user with the same name already exists and if you want to continue, you can say yes and this should resolve the issue.

If the Test user you are using to probe with is an administrator account, you can delete users that you no longer want to have access to your Mac or in this case has no access. You may want to delete the account if it is listed in Users and Groups because it is not displaying at the login window but be sure to leave the user’s home folder as is: Select “Don’t change the home folder.” The user’s documents and information remain and the user can be restored later if needed. The home folder remains in /Users/. Then you can add a new user with the same username and password as the one you just "deleted" and then test to see if the affected account appears at the login window.

Important: Back up !!

I imagine there are other workarounds but this should be a quick fix but I don't know if it will work until you try it.

If it doesn't work, you may need to create a new user account and migrate user data manually from the affected account to a new one.

What I can tell you from what you outlined is that the Mac appears to work as expected, software and hardware wise based on the successful login to the test user account but there is definitely corruption. Use of the power button to shutdown can be disruptive but I understand there was little choice due to the persistent spinning beachball which usually presents itself when there is some activity that overwhelms the system's ability to pass control on to the user. Typically this is a symptom of some sort of contention with the hard drive — as it struggles to read and/or write the user is left staring at the spinning beachball. Normally a spinning beachball is not on for so long that patience on the user's side runs out so do consider the drive's age when analysing, especially if you begin to see repeated spinning beachball activity.

If you exhaust your attempts to analyse and isolate the issue but the spinning beachball persists I would do the following (short of buying a new hard drive)

  1. Back up all user data
  2. erase the hard drive (zero out the drive) and install the OS followed by migrating the user data back. I know this is intrusive, it's meant to be a last resort.

The zero out is important because it forces the drive to exercise the entire surface of the disk. If it is ever going to fail catastrophically it will fail during the zero out.

Of course ask your friend to assure you that there are no strange clicks or clacks coming from inside the computer because that could be a hard drive mechanical failure . If it is that please recycle responsibly.

Finally, a word of advice, the drive may be old and tired and nearing an end of life, be sure to backup going forward.

PS DiskWarrior specialises in directory damaged repair. Currently only works with HFS+, APFS is coming later but doesn't apply here anyway.

This post was modified 2 years ago 2 times by Alex Santos

With regards checking the SMART status of the hard drive..... I find the simple "good or bad" indicator within Disk Utility to be pretty poor. Certainly if it reports a problem you can believe that attention is required, but other tools can report all the SMART parameters and show them on a scale - effectively indicating "starting to fail".

My go to tool for this (as a consultant) is Tech Tool Pro but there is a very comprehensive review of SMART & the available investigate tools over at Eclectic Light Company

For a one off SMART status check, Disk Drill can be downloaded and used in preview mode for free.

I read the article and got curious about his tool of choice, DriveDX. I investigated and found the DriveDX is essentially a GUI for smartctl.

If you install the free smartmontools through brew or some other package manager you call it by issuing the command smartctl.

Kind of interesting that DriveDX is essentially a GUI for smartctl.

This according to the SmartMonTools wiki.