Instant Messaging

Instant messaging (IM or DM)) allows you to ‘chat’ in real time over the internet in a similar way to mobile phone text messages. Advanced systems allow webcam and voice communication. The main systems are WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, Windows Live Messenger (formerly MSN) and Yahoo! Messenger. Instant messaging can be great for staying in touch with friends but, like email, it carries risks.

The risks

  • People online are not necessarily who they say they are or seem to be.
  • Eavesdropping on your conversations. Unless there is a guarantee of end-to-end encryption, messages could be intercepted and even saved for use offline.
  • IM software may be vulnerable to virus or other attack.
  • Online chat rooms – accessible through instant messaging – can be undesirable places.

Use instant messaging safely

  • Never give out passwords, credit card information or other private data.
  • Block strangers. If your software allows it, set up the system so that only people on your ‘allow’ list can contact you.
  • Be very wary of disclosing any private information to a stranger you meet via instant messaging. Even apparently innocent information like the name of your employer can be used against you by fraudsters.
  • Never click on links that you receive through instant messaging from people that you do not know and trust, and that you have never met in real life.
  • Leave your online profile blank, or where you have to enter data to use the system, enter fictitious data.
  • Do not use your system or email password to log on to an IM system.
  • Unless otherwise stated, IM is not encrypted, so do not use it to transmit information such as credit card numbers or other sensitive information.
  • Disable automatic downloads.
  • Verify information you receive on IM elsewhere. In particular, check any security ‘advice’ you get.
  • Keep your IM software up to date.
  • Do not let children use instant messaging chat rooms unsupervised.

Jargon Buster

A Glossary of terms used in this article:


A list of personal details revealed by users of social networking, gaming, dating and other websites. Profiles may normally be configured to be public or private.

Instant messaging

Chat conversations between two or more people via typing on computers or portable devices. Systems include BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook Chat, MSN Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo!


The process of converting data into cipher text (a type of code) to prevent it from being understood by an unauthorised party.


Listening in to voice or data traffic without the knowledge or consent of the sender or recipient.