Tips For Using Instant Messenger Applications Safely

imageIn a recent Symantec survey, which questioned computer users on the most likely routes cybercriminals use to drop malware on unsuspecting users, one resultant statistic made me sit up a little straighter. Just 3.9% of survey participants believed that Instant Messenger applications had a role in malware distribution.

Given the frequency with which instant messaging is used to distribute malware (recent statistics indicate almost 50% of worms use this method to spread), I was more than a little surprised at this unrealistic response.

We’ve talked about IM security a number of times here, but this recent statistics indicates, a quick refresher might be in order.

The reality is, from a security perspective Instant Messaging applications can present considerable security risks. Security breakdowns can occur when these programs are used to share files, folders, or in some cases, entire drives. Instant messaging, unfortunately, is a primary channel used by cyber-criminals to distribute malware and scams.

Just a few days ago, for example, a Trend Micro analyst discovered an IM variant of the “Solve the IQ test”. Had he followed the instructions, he could have let himself in for a series of monthly charges of $9.99–$19.99 a month, automatically added to his cell phone bill.

Programs such as MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, AIM, and a basket full of other IM applications, are extremely popular with users who want real-time contact with each other and (no surprise here), this makes them the perfect vehicle for cyber criminals.

Hackers use two methods of delivering malicious code through IM: delivery of virus, Trojan, or spy ware within an infected file, and the use of “socially engineered” text with a web address that entices the recipient to click on a URL which connects to a website that downloads malicious code. Viruses, worms, and Trojans then typically propagate, by sending themselves rapidly through the infected user’s buddy list.


The following is a series of sensible tips for users to get the most out of these programs, securely and responsibly.

As with any other application you use on the Internet, having the knowledge that allows you to use it safely, and being aware of current threats, will make for a more positive experience when using these wildly popular applications.

Don’t click on links, or download files from unknown sources. You need to be alert to the dangers in clicking on links, or downloading files from sources that are not known to you. Even if the files or links apparently come from someone you know, you have to be positive that it really was this person who has sent the message.

Check with your contact to be sure the files, or links are genuine. Remember, if you click on those links, or run those attachments without confirmation, you run the risk of letting malware into your computer.

Use only secure passwords, and be sure to change them regularly. The longer and more varied they are – using a variety of different characters and numbers – the more secure they will be.

Protect personal and confidential information when using IM. Revealing confidential or personal information in these types of conversations, can make you an easy target for Internet predators.

For added protection when using a public computer, ensure that you disable any features that retain login information to prevent other users from gaining access to your instant messaging once you leave.

It’s virtually impossible to avoid publishing your email address on the Internet, however do so only when absolutely necessary. Cyber criminals are always on the lookout for accounts to target.

Instant Messanger changed Above all, if you are a parent, take exceptional care with the access that your children have to these programs.

The risk here goes beyond malware, as sadly, they could come into contact with undesirable individuals. The risk is low of course, but……..

Elsewhere in this Blog, you can read an article on protecting your children on the Internet and download free software, Parental Control Bar,  to help you do just that.

Readers with younger children, please read, KidZui – Free, Safe Internet Browsing for Kids, on this site. This guest writer article, by Silki Garg of the Internet Security Blog, provides a comprehensive review of KidZui.

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Filed under Child Safety Internet, cybercrime, Don't Get Scammed, Don't Get Hacked, Freeware, Instant Messenger Safety Tips, Interconnectivity, Internet Safety for Children, Internet Safety for Teenagers, Malware Advisories, Online Safety, Software, Utilities, Windows Tips and Tools, worms

2 responses to “Tips For Using Instant Messenger Applications Safely

  1. Mal

    Hey Bill,

    I don’t have any instant messaging software installed. I use the online version of MSN Messenger at times, but that’s about it. If I really need to speak to someone, I pick up the phone.


    • Hey Mal,

      I think IM software is regressive. What’s next – smoke signals? 🙂 Like you, I use the phone or, depending on circumstances – Skype/Google Voice.