Guest post by Margie Wylie

Instant messaging (IM) used to be confined to computers. But now it’s even on our phones as popular services such as Skype, Facebook and Google go mobile and are joined by newer apps such as Beejive and Kik. IM lets families and friends chat as quickly as they can type. And now, IM programs are integrating across all of your devices, so you can IM whether you’re in front of your computer, iPad or Android phone.

Convenient as it may be, however, IMing also comes with security risks. Whether you’re contemplating joining the instant messaging crowd or are already an avid IMer, here are a few hazards you — and your kids — need to beware of:

  • Spam/spim. Junk IMs, also known as spim, are on the rise. These ads often contain inappropriate images (such as pornographic photos) that can suddenly pop up on your screen. Sometimes the messages appear to be from your bank or a contest, for example, but are actually from someone who’s trying to con you into divulging personal and financial information.

  • Worms, viruses and Trojan horses. Just like with email, malicious programs can infect your IM program too. If this happens, unbeknownst to you, infected IMs will be sent to those on your contact list. These viruses can make your IM program sluggish, crash your computer or even take over your computer to surreptitiously use it for hacking or other illegal activities.
  • Predators. IM’s very personal, one-to-one nature — and the fact that you can close an IM chat window and it’s as if the conversation never existed — has attracted child predators. Experts say these predators use IM to find new victims and try to lure them for offline meetings or to indecently expose themselves via webcams.

Safe Instant Messaging
There’s no cure-all for all IM hazards, but vigilance, common sense and a few basic safety tips can keep your family safe and connected, says Anne Collier, editor, executive director and founder of To keep your family safe, here are her recommendations:

1. Block unwanted or unknown senders.
Adjust your IM settings so that only those on your contact list can IM you. If you get suspicious or annoying IMs, you can block specific users.

2. Don’t give out personal information.
It’s a good idea for your family to choose names that don’t include personal details, like “ZipCode94111” or “ChicagoGirl” or “WestmontHighCheerleader.” Many IM programs allow you to create profiles too. For extra privacy protection, skip this option or just don’t include identifying information or photos.

3. Never reply to strangers.
If you haven’t changed your settings to get IMs only from people on your contact list — or if you’re using a public computer at a library or school — strangers can IM you. Whether an IM is a pornographic advertisement or a message from someone who seems friendly, the rule is the same: Don’t reply. Train your kids to turn off their IM program if this happens, and to tell you or another adult immediately if they receive a scary or disturbing message or image.

4. Don’t click unsolicited links or attachments.
Even if a link appears to be from a friend, it could have been sent by a worm or another malicious program trying to infect your computer. So unless you just asked your friend to IM you a link to her favorite recipe site, for example, don’t click any unsolicited links sent via IM. Also, avoid opening files attached to an IM, as viruses can spread this way too.

5. Don’t meet online pals offline.
Sometimes your kids might meet a friend elsewhere on the Internet, like within an online community site. Then they might give out their IM screen name to have a private conversation. This is bad news, as it’s often how predators find kids. So let your kids know that they should never give out their IM screen name to people they — and you — don’t know personally. And they should never agree to meet an online friend at an offline location.

6. Monitor your kids.
Set some house rules for how to use IM appropriately (like no bullying others or using foul language). Sure, kids want their privacy, but IM — like your telephone — is a resource most parents don’t want to be abused. So get to know the screen names of your kids’ friends. Put your computer in an area of your home that enables you to see whether your children are having inappropriate conversations with people you don’t know or if they’re being harassed.

Although IM programs allow you to use webcams to chat face-to-face, this is a major safety issue when it comes to kids. It’s simple: Never let kids use webcams without supervision.

7. Talk to your kids.
Finally, let your kids know all the risks of IM along with the steps they can take to instant message safely. And keep the conversation going: Kids who talk openly about what they do while online are more likely to follow common-sense Internet safety precautions, according to experts.

Margie Wylie is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and mother of two. Her articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Portland Oregonian, Know-How, MacWorld magazine, and others.

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