Instant Messaging

Instant messaging (IM) allows you to ‘chat’ in real time over the internet in a similar way to mobile phone text messages, but with many systems now also enabling voice and video calls. Some of the best-known dedicated messaging platforms are WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal and Wickr. Instant messaging is also available as a function of many gaming, dating, video calling and other platforms.

As well as being private chat spaces, instant messaging platforms have also become more akin to social media platforms and applications in their own right. Already popular before the COVID-19 pandemic, their use increased dramatically with the need to replace face-to-face contact and share topical content with either individual contacts or groups.

Like many things we do online, however, there can be risks in using instant messaging

  • People online are not necessarily who they say they are or seem to be. This is more likely to be the case with chat or messaging facilities on gaming or other non-dedicated platforms. However, scammers and others have also recently taken to using dedicated messaging platforms to impersonate victims’ genuine contacts by messaging them claiming to have changed their phone number, gaining their trust then defrauding them.
  • Somebody persuading you to download and run virus-infected software.
  • Eavesdropping on your conversations. Unless the messaging application or app features end-to-end encryption, there is no guarantee of privacy.
  • Messaging software may be vulnerable to virus or other attack.
  • Online chat rooms – accessible through instant messaging – can be riddled with abusive, offensive or otherwise inappropriate conversations.

 Using instant messaging safely

  • Never give out passwords, credit card information or other private data.
  • If you receive a message on an instant messaging platform that a contact has changed their phone number, call them on the number you know to be correct to check, to avoid the possibility of sharing private information with – or being scammed by – an impostor.
  • 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 to safeguard confidential details.
  • Do not use your system or email password to log on to an instant messaging platform.
  • Never use instant messaging to transmit information such as credit card numbers or other sensitive information, even if it is end-to-end encrypted. You never know who messages will be forwarded to, even if in innocence.
  • Disable automatic downloads.
  • Verify information elsewhere that you receive on instant messaging, in particular security advice.
  • Keep messaging software and apps up to date. Better still, set them to update automatically.
  • Do not let young children use instant messaging chat rooms unsupervised. Check the lower age limits of messaging software and apps.


Jargon Buster

A Glossary of terms used in this article:

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.