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71. Beware of downloads while instant messaging

By Mark Alberstat

People love to chat. Whether it is around the water cooler or over a cup of coffee, there is always something to chat about. Today, more and more people are going online to do their chatting with instant messaging (IM) programs like MSN Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger or others. The advantage of these programs over e-mail is, as the name suggests, the conversation is almost instantaneous. IMlogic, a leader in IM software security, stated in its third-quarter IM Threat Report that there are about 300 million users of IM software and that more than one billion messages are sent each day through these types of programs.

Due to the popularity of IM, virus authors are turning the evil gaze toward these programs and how they can infect the user's computer. The vast majority of threats that move through IM are ones that the end user must actively participate in. Most of these come in the form of a link to click on or a file to download. IMlogic also reports that 62 per cent of all IM threats are aimed at MSN users, while AOL/ICQ users receive about 31 per cent of the threats. The remaining seven percent is focused on Yahoo!

The most common virus threat to IM is the Kelvir virus that was first reported in March 2005. Mary Landesman, writing for, claims that by mid-September, there has been more than 200 variants of this threat reported.

To interest the user on clicking a displayed link, the virus sends a message with a variety of titles, including "omg this is funny!"; "People say this is real, u might wanna check this out"; ":) :) haha, this is cool" and others. Once the link is clicked on, your web browser opens to a page on the Internet that loads infected files on your computer. Most of these are variants of the SDbot virus, which is designed to exploit security holes in the Windows operating system.

Follow a few basic rules to keep yourself safe from IM viruses. The first, and most obvious, is to not download any files transferred through an IM program. If you are downloading files, be sure that you not only know who the file is from, but that the sender has an up-to-date virus scanner on his or her machine to help protect you from receiving a questionable file. If you are not expecting your IM chat partner to send you a file and a prompt appears requesting you to download something, it is best to double-check with the person that the file is safe and they are aware of the transmission.

Another step to help you avoid these viruses is to keep your operating system, IM program and virus scanner up to date. The latest versions of all these software packages will help protect your system and the people you are chatting with.

Anti-spyware software is also an important brick in your wall of defence. Some IM viruses will install spyware programs on your computer. Updated sofware will help prevent these from being downloaded or will detect them when you scan your machine, which should be done about once a week.

With these tips in mind, you should be able to join the millions of people using IM technology to chat online about everything imaginable, and keep your computer safe at the same time.

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, email If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


The Mousepad Index


Originally published 30 October 2005


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