Instant messaging is everywhere, but the industry still lacks standard protocols and safety features. Chats on most commercial messengers are easy to tap and even exploit: this month AOL and Yahoo announced they had found holes in their software that allow hackers to slip malicious code into computers. What to do? Never send confidential information over IM. Otherwise, consider switching to one of these free providers which give you more security:
Gaim (gaim.source forge.net) looks and feels like AIM, but is more secure and can chat with all major messengers. With encryption fixin's, Jabber (jabber.org) is great for privacy. And Tor (freehaven.net/tor) maintains your anonymity through a distributed network of servers, making it hard for snoops to monitor. Whichever you choose, says security consultant Jacob Appelbaum, "make sure the network you're on is one you can trust."