Jewish World Review

Get ready for 'spim' | (KRT) If spam is the original loud, overbearing and annoying junk e-mail, spim is its cunning offspring.

Unwanted computer messages have taken on a pesky form: Now, not only are users subject to a flood of unsolicited e-mails advertising everything from Viagra to penis enlargement drugs to pornography, the communication is now coming via unwanted instant messages, or spim.

The number of spim incidents is growing with the popularity of the instant messenger, which is a way to communicate in almost real-time on computers. In the techno-world, instant messaging was a bit of a sanctuary for people who wanted to communicate without receiving hundreds of unwanted messages.

No more.

"It's an annoyance," said Tim Chang, 35, of Kendall, Fla., who has received spim with a soft porn advertisement while working on his home computer. "But you don't take them up on the offers."

According to San Francisco-based Ferris Research Inc., which tracks Internet traffic, the amount of spim increased by four times between 2002 and 2003, from 125 million messages to 500 million.

This year, it is estimated that there will be two billion spims.

Despite the tremendous increase, those numbers pale in comparison to spam, which is roughly half of all e-mail traffic.

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But spim is competing with spam as the Internet's most bothersome and intrusive kinds of communication - especially since it can present itself without ever being opened.

"In a way, it's more intrusive than e-mail because it pops up," said Ben Littauer, a consultant with Ferris Research. "It's not a worse problem than downloading something from the Internet."

Instant messenger, or IM, which began gaining popularity in the mid-'90s, was once a method for Generation Y-ers to speak with friends instantly. Cheaper than using a cell phone, and often more discreet than e-mail, this form of communication has become a mainstay in teen culture, experts say.

It's quickly moving to the corporate environment. As workers are deluged with e-mails every day, it can take them hours each day just to clean out e-mails and return them.

IM's biggest providers, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger, are taking steps to reduce the amount of spim.

MSN Messenger, for example, has created a "reverse list" that shows users who is on their buddy lists. The buddy list allows other users to check the online status of everyone on the list, and enables them to send instant messages to users when they log on.

The reverse buddy list allows users to block unwanted contacts.

Spim has already reared its head in a viruslike form.

Some IM users have received an instant message disguised with the names of the friends on their buddy list, stating that Osama bin Laden has been captured. The message includes a link to what purports to be a news article.

But when users click on the link, it directs them to a website for downloading a video game. Those who download the game accept terms and conditions which inadvertently let the program send the same invitation to contacts on their buddy lists.

Downloading the game also installs adware, which is software that tracks users' Web habits and interests, presenting pop-up ads and resetting the home page.

Steve Mullaney, vice president of marketing for Blue Coat Systems, an information security company, says the best way to prevent (or manage) spim is to have the proper software in place to control it.

But it can be tricky to control.

"Like anything, it starts with a ripple and grows," Mullaney said.

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© 2004, The Miami Herald Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services