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Is emotional manipulation a crime?

I had to smile the other day at a news story from Luxembourg. Apparently some cybercriminals who were trying to scam ordinary citizens accidentally tried to scam the police instead.

The best part: the scammers were so inept they let their phone number show up on caller ID.

These particular scammers pretended to be representatives of Microsoft. They first told unsuspecting computer owners they’d been hacked, then offered to undo the damage.

This technique, called phishing, is interesting from a communications perspective. As humans, we have a “radar” that looks for possible signs of untruth. So for phishing to work, the scammer needs to deal with that radar.

Phishing scammers don’t so much fly under the radar as short-circuit it. They start by playing to one of our most powerful emotions: fear. Having plunged us into a state of panic, they then offer to “rescue” us.

When phishing works, it’s because the victim never gets as far as examining the message for things that don’t seem right (ask yourself: when was the last time you got a customer service call from Microsoft?). The victim’s emotional response overwhelms and outmaneuvers their judgment. It’s both more powerful and faster.

Phishing is a crime, and it is emotional manipulation that makes it possible. But is emotional manipulation a crime in itself? It’s tempting to say yes – that it is at least a moral or social crime, whether any actual law is broken or not.

But it’s not as easy as that. Communications of every type have an emotional component, and much of it is frankly manipulative. Advertising and politics are easy examples, but who among us has never chosen our words with the specific intention of playing to someone’s emotions (either to trigger certain ones or avoid triggering others)?

Even texts that seem to be entirely unemotional can be emotionally manipulative. Their very ordinariness can be designed to induce feelings of comfort or complacency.

Scams like phishing work not because they violate the rules of effective communication, but because they follow them. Something fun to think about the next time “Microsoft” rings you up.

Click to see this column in the November 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.