Communicating by using an instant messaging (IM) program has some of the same security and privacy risks as e-mail, but there are a few dangers that are unique to IM.

  1. Never open pictures, download files, or click links in messages from people you don’t know. If they come from someone you do know, confirm with the sender that the message (and its attachments) is trustworthy. If it’s not, close the instant message.

  2. Be careful when you create a screen name. Each IM program asks you to create a screen name, which is similar to an e-mail address. Your screen name should not provide or allude to personal information. For example, use a nickname such as FootballFan instead of BaltimoreJenny.

  3. Create a barrier against unwanted instant messaging. Do not list your screen name or e-mail address in public areas (such as large Internet directories or online community profiles) or give them to strangers.
    Some IM services link your screen name to your e-mail address when you register. The easy availability of your e-mail address can result in an increased number of spam and phishing attacks.

  4. Never provide sensitive personal information, such as your credit card numbers or passwords, in an IM conversation.

  5. Block unwanted messages. Most IM programs allow you to build a contact list (also known as a “buddy list”), which is similar to the address book in your e-mail program.
    You can choose to allow anyone to add you to their contact list or you can restrict your contact list to people you want to hear from. You can also choose to block all incoming messages from everyone except the people on your contact list.

  6. If you decide to meet a stranger that you know only from IM communication, take appropriate safety precautions. For example, do not meet that person alone, (take a friend or parent with you), and always meet and stay in a public place, such as a cafe.

  7. Don’t send personal or private instant messages at work. Your employer might have a right to view those messages.

  8. If you use a public computer, do not log on automatically. If you do, people who use that computer after you can see and use your screen name to log on.

  9. Monitor and limit your children’s use of IM. If you use Windows Vista or Seven, it comes with parental controls built-in.

  10. When you’re not available to receive messages, be careful how you display this information to other users. For example, you might not want everyone on your contact list to know that you’re “Out to Lunch.”