Role of Instant Messaging in Cybercrime

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Instant messaging can be used as an entry point for criminal activity, but how can a short message be used as a means to a criminal act? In this lesson, we'll explore the role of instant messaging in cybercrime.

Just Ask

If you want to know which platforms cyber criminals prefer for their nefarious deeds, what's the best way to find out? Ask them.

A recent survey conducted by Flashpoint showed that not only do cyber criminals prefer instant messaging to carry out their crimes, but they have favorites among the various options. Instant messaging platforms allow for real-time messages to be sent between two or more people. While instant messaging functions exist in many of today's social media platforms, there are also standalone apps such as Skype, WhatsApp, WeChat, Jabber and Viber.

Instant messaging programs like WhatsApp are being used to help cyber criminals take advantage of their victims.
whatsapp, Skype, instant messaging, cybercrime

Today's instant messaging platforms are user-friendly, easy to access and offer greater encryption (encoding of data) that prevents conversations from being hacked. The enhanced security measures for consumers also, ironically, protect the criminals as well. Still, the relative anonymity of instant messaging programs means that you could be talking to your friend, Cindy, from college or someone impersonating your friend, Cindy, who lives half-way around the world and is trying to steal your data.

So, why else are criminals so drawn to instant messaging? Let's dig deeper.

Criminal Love Affair

What is it about instant messaging that works so well for today's cyber criminals?

First, it's popular. Most people have used at least the instant messaging feature on a social media site or maybe even an independent app. Because of wide use, this makes it a viable target for criminals looking for victims. In addition, a lot of people who use these types of programs spend a lot of their time engaging with them.

Instant messaging is immediate. You can communicate in real-time with users, both people you know and those you don't. They can be in your time zone or on the other side of the world. In that way, it makes instant messaging users available anywhere at any time.

Speaking of ''any time,'' most instant messaging programs are always on. What that means is that people can send messages to you whether you are active or not, making it very convenient. If you need to remind your roommate to turn off the lights when she leaves for work, you can send it in an instant message when she's still sleeping and she'll get it when she wakes up. The dark side of this is that criminals can also contact people at any time of the day, which allows them to send malicious files, viruses or other unwanted items to you easily.

Security Concerns

Like most hardware and software, instant messaging programs are not immune from bugs that require security updates. Sometimes these bugs can be exploited by cyber criminals who can use loopholes to send viruses and malicious codes to the target computer. This type of act can not only compromise your personal information, but also potentially disable it entirely. Failing to install the necessary updates to these programs can create a vulnerability cyber criminals can expose.

For example, some years back, a loophole in Microsoft's MSN Messenger allowed criminals to access their victims' contact list and then send spoof messages to other people impersonating the victims. This type of hack could be used to gain personal information, trick others out of money, send sensitive photos or even pose threats to their systems as well.

Another issue with instant messaging that consumers need to consider is a cyber criminal's ability to hack messages that are meant only for the eyes of the intended recipient. Personal conversations, photos and videos could be accessed by a hacker and used to blackmail or create very public and embarrassing situations. This could also present a problem for business users of instant messaging programs, who may use these platforms to discuss trade secrets, marketing strategies or financial data.

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