How Instant Messaging Security Works

By: Dave Roos
instant messaging
On average, teens send at least one instant message daily.
Alison Michael Orenstein/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Instant messaging is fast, fun, versatile and downright addictive. According to the latest statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 34 percent of online teenage girls and 25 percent of online teenage boys send at least one instant message every day [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]. When you consider that 95 percent of all teenagers in America are "online," it's enough to make even the most stubborn e-mail dinosaur say "OMG."

With the popularity of TV programs like "To Catch a Predator," many parents are concerned about the safety of IM. Does IM make teenagers more vulnerable to sexual predators? Is IM any more dangerous than online social networks like MySpace and Facebook, or even e-mail?


The truth is that by taking some simple precautions, both teenagers and adults can enjoy IM safely.

How do you keep your computer safe while instant messaging? How do you keep your family safe? Read on to find out.


Maintaining Instant Messaging Security

screen names
For security purposes, pay close attention when creating screen names and passords.
Daisuke Morita/Photodisc/Getty Images

Instant messaging security starts with your screen name. Creating a screen name is a fun, creative process, and everyone wants his or her screen name to say something unique. But try your best to avoid including any personal information in your screen name. This is especially true for teens, who are the most vulnerable to online predators.

Some words to avoid including in your screen name:


  • Your real first or last name (example: jennysmith)
  • Your age (example: jenny16)
  • Your geographical location (example: jennyNYC)
  • The name of your high school or college (example: jenny_centralHS)

Some alternative ideas for creating a screen name:

  • Your hobbies (example: IMaddict2008)
  • Your pet's name (example: frecklesmom)
  • Your favorite musician, sports team, actor, food, etc. (example: rihanna4ever)

Once you've created a screen name, treat it like a secret identity. Don't give it out to just anyone. A screen name should be even more private than an e-mail address. Don't publish it on public Web sites where it's easy for phishing programs to record your screen name and send you spam messages. Also try to avoid linking your screen name to your e-mail address, or vice versa.

When you were a kid, there was one unbreakable rule: "Don't talk to strangers." The same is true for IM security. The best way to safely use IM is to only chat with people you know. If someone you don't know tries to IM you, don't accept the invitation. If they have a legitimate reason to get in touch with you, they can send an e-mail or call.

If for some reason you decide to chat with someone on IM that you don't know, or don't know very well, don't open up any files or photos that are attached to a message. This is an easy way for a malicious hacker to load a virus, worm or spyware onto your computer.

Even if you're chatting with a friend, check the name and file extension of all attached files before opening them. If your friend's computer is infected with a virus, it could automatically send out copies of the virus to all of your friend's IM buddies. Particularly avoid opening any suspicious .txt or .exe files.

Don't include any highly personal or private information in an IM message. Instant messages, like e-mail, are relatively easy for a hacker to intercept. All of the messages need to pass through a central server (AOL, Yahoo!, Google, et cetera) and can be stolen at various weak points in the network. Also, many IM programs save the logs of an IM session for future reference. This can be useful, especially if you use IM in a work setting, but it can also pose a security risk. If someone gains access to your IM logs, they can use your old messages to collect highly personal or highly sensitive information.

Most IM programs include status messages that allow those on your buddy or contact list to know if you're available to chat. Be careful about letting people know too much about where you are and what you're doing. Instead of saying, "Gone out to Burger King," just use a generic "Busy." This way you don't tip off a potential stranger that you've left your home or office and are in a particular outside location.

The last rule of IM is to be extremely careful when meeting someone in real life who you only know through IM. Take a friend or parent along and meet in a public place during the day, like a café or a busy park.

Now let's look at what can happen if you don't maintain IM security.


What Happens Without Instant Messaging Security

Taking proper security precautions protects you and your family when sending instant messages.
Tom Merton/OJO Images/Getty Images

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.

For even more information about online security, instant messaging and related topics, check out the helpful links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • 10 Tips for Safer Instant Messaging

  • Lehart, Amanda et al. "Writing, Technology and Teens." The Pew Internet & American Life Project. April 24, 2008.
  • Microsoft. "10 Tips for Safer Instant Messaging." Jan. 8, 2007.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Instant Messaging Security." Campus Information Technology and Educational Services.
  • Ybarra, Michelle L; Mitchell, Kimberly J."How Risky are Social Networking Sites? A Comparison of Places Online Where Youth Sexual Solicitation and Harassment Occurs."  Pediatrics. Jan. 28, 2008.­