Without instant messaging security, you make yourself more vulnerable to harmful computer viruses, theft of important work-related information and in the worst cases, put yourself in personal danger.
A particularly dangerous type of computer virus is called a Trojan horse. These viruses are disguised as legitimate software programs -- hence the name -- to fool you into installing them on your computer. If you open an IM attachment and run the Trojan horse file, you may have given a malicious hacker the ability to monitor and even control your computer remotely.
Trojan horse viruses can replicate and send copies of themselves to everyone on your IM or contact list. They can manipulate file-sharing controls within your IM program to allow open access to every file on your hard drive. They can even send information about you and your computer to the hacker, like your IP (Internet protocol) address and system passwords.
If you use IM for work, be careful not to send sensitive company information over unencrypted networks. Standard IM programs like AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and Google Talk send messages back and forth over unencrypted networks. This is why many companies choose to install special IM clients on their internal, encrypted networks to keep sensitive information out of the hands of prying hackers. If your office saves IM logs on a central server, make sure that access to the server is highly secure.
For parents, the biggest security and safety concern about IM is that their teens will meet a stranger online and be lured into a dangerous real-world encounter. According to a study published by "Pediatrics," 15 percent of online kids aged 10 to 15 reported an "unwanted sexual solicitation" online in 2007. Of those solicitations, 43 percent came through IM. Additionally, 33 percent of online 10-15 year olds reported some type of online harassment in 2007 with more than half of those messages coming through IM [source: Pediatrics].
It should be noted that nothing in the report suggests that these solicitations and harassment were from adults. In fact, the study reversed one of the common stereotypes about adult online predators. Most people assume that these adults pretend to be young people themselves and hide their sexual intentions. According to law enforcement records, in 95 percent of the sex crimes that originated online, the adults were honest about their age, and in 79 percent of the cases, the adults were honest about their intent to have sexual relations with the minor [source: Pediatrics].
While any statistics concerning sexual predators are disturbing, these new numbers show that perhaps the greatest form of IM safety for teenagers is good parenting. Parents should talk to their kids about their online life and make sure that they're chatting with the right people. For many teenagers, IM is a crucial part of their socializing culture. Instead of cutting kids off from IM, treat it with the same care that you treat your child's offline friendships. If you wouldn't let your child hang out with friends you don't know, then do your best to make sure they're not IMing people you don't know either.
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