After nearly ruining the usefulness of email with billions of spams, unscrupulous marketers are now turning their attention to instant messaging (IM).
In recent weeks, several reports have been released detailing the emergence of spim, or spam-laden instant messages. The numbers vary, but one thing is clear, spim is making inroads and it won't be long before it hits millions of IM windows worldwide.
One report from the Radicati Group says that the number of spim messages is set to almost triple from 400 million instant messages in 2003 to about 1.2 billion instant messages by year-end 2004.
"While this may not seem like a big number compared to the projected 34.8 billion spam email messages at the end of 2004, the invasion of spim is still greatly unwanted and proof yet again of spammers being far from defeated," the firm claimed.
Other research, from companies like the Yankee Group and Ferris Research, have also made claims about the veracity of spim, with the latter saying that some 500 million spims were sent in 2003. Those figures, added to the astronomical growth of business IM - from 10 million users in 2002 to 182 million in 2007, according to Ferris - the potential damage spimming could present becomes enormous.
The fact is, spim is not entirely new and long-time IM providers like AOL have been fighting the problem since IM was first made available. But whereas early IM fraudsters often sought to steal AOL account details, today's version is increasingly interested in selling goods and services, with some 70 per cent of spim messages pointing to pornographic websites. Around 12 per cent involve "get rich" schemes; product sales account for nine per cent; and loans or finance messages are at five per cent, according to Radicati.
Still, most analysts have admitted that the spim problem may never grow to be as big a problem as emailed spam. But the intrusiveness of spim - with messages popping up on screen - makes the format somehow more insidious.
The use of a "buddy list" that prevents strangers from sending spims is a common and generally effective way to block unwanted messages. But if the buddy list is off, watch out. According to a recent New Scientist report, some would-be spimmers have developed malicious code that if activated on a victim's PC can allow the spimmer to impersonate that victim, spimming all of the user's "buddies."
Other spimming tools include chatroom bots that pose as humans, persuading others to add them to their buddy list, thus exposing the victim to spim.