Extortion vs. Blackmail – What’s the Difference?

Marcus Froland

You’ve probably heard the terms extortion and blackmail used interchangeably, but did you know that they have distinct legal definitions? Understanding the difference between these criminal acts can be essential when navigating complicated situations involving coercion and threats. In this article, we’ll explore the distinctions between extortion and blackmail and discuss how federal law and state law come into play.

Understanding the Definitions: What Are Extortion and Blackmail?

Extortion and blackmail are two serious theft crimes frequently mentioned in criminal cases, with both involving coercion threats to extract money, property, or services from their victims. While there are similarities between them, their distinctions lie in the specific strategies used to execute the crime.

Extortion, as defined in the legal context, involves using violence, threats, or other forms of coercion to obtain something of value, such as money, property, or services. Some common examples of extortion include threatening physical harm or property damage to intimidate the victim. On the other hand, blackmail is a subset of extortion centered around threatening to reveal embarrassing or incriminating information rather than resorting to violence or physical threats.

Extortion can be defined as the use of violence, threats, or other forms of coercion to obtain money, property, or services, whereas blackmail specifically involves threats of revealing sensitive information about the victim.

To further illustrate the differences between extortion and blackmail, consider the following scenarios:

  • Extortion: A person demands money from a store owner, threatening to vandalize the store if the owner doesn’t comply with the demand.
  • Blackmail: A person discovers that their neighbor has been having an extramarital affair and demands payment in exchange for not revealing this information to the neighbor’s spouse.

While both scenarios demonstrate the use of coercion threats to obtain something from the victim, the strategies used differentiate the two crimes. In the first case, the person threatens physical damage to the store, which is a clear example of extortion. In the second case, the person threatens to reveal a secret, which falls under the blackmail definition.

Understanding the legal definitions of extortion and blackmail is crucial to identifying these theft crimes and their differences. Though often used interchangeably, it is important to recognize the specific methods of coercion employed in each crime to comprehend the true nature and severity of the threat.

Historical Context and Legal Evolution of Extortion and Blackmail

Extortion and blackmail have evolved significantly over time, shifting from original contexts under common law to encompass broader legal interpretations. Understanding the origins and legal evolution of these crimes provides an illuminating perspective on their contemporary prevalence and impact.

The Origins of Extortion and How It Became a Crime

Initially, under common law, extortion was considered a crime exclusive to public officials, who would refuse to perform official duties without receiving some form of payment. This narrow scope began to expand with the legal evolution of criminal statutes, broadening the definition to include a wider range of coercive acts.

Extortion was initially considered a crime only committed by government officials, involving the refusal to perform official duties without payment.Over time, criminal statutes expanded the definition to include a wider range of coercive crimes beyond just public officials.

The transformation of extortion from an offense restricted to public servants to a broader crime is a testament to the law’s adaptability in response to 4 changing social, economic, and political contexts.

The Scottish Connection: How Blackmail Got Its Name

Unlike extortion, blackmail has a distinct historical origin that can be traced back to Scotland. The term ‘blackmail’ is derived from the Scottish word ‘mail,’ which means agreement or rent. This connection with Scotland sheds light on the etymological roots of the crime and its evolution over time.

In the Scottish context, farmers would make protection payments to chieftains in silver coins, known as “silver mail.” When payments were made in other goods or labor, they were referred to as “blackmail” – a practice that involved extorting protection money in exchange for safety.

Term Origin Meaning
Mail Scotland Agreement or rent
Silver Mail Scotland Payments made in silver coins by farmers to chieftains for protection
Blackmail Scotland Payments made in other goods or labor by farmers to chieftains for protection

Like extortion, the crime of blackmail has also undergone legal evolution and revisions in its definition over time. However, the core principle of using coercive power to force a target to comply with demands remains central to both crimes.

The Key Elements That Define Extortion

Extortion is a complex criminal act involving multiple key elements that typically include coercion, threats of violence, and misuse of authority. These components help differentiate extortion from other crimes, while illustrating the damage it can inflict on victims.

At its core, extortion involves using coercion to force someone to give up their money, property, or services. This can take many forms, from physical harm to emotional manipulation.

“Extortion is the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right.” (18 U.S. Code § 1951 – Definitions)

Another critical element is the misuse of authority, which often involves threats or undue influence that an individual with power may manipulate to demand something valuable in return from their victims.

Extortion often employs threats of violence to coerce victims into compliance. These threats can be verbal or non-verbal and are intended to create a real sense of fear in the victim, ensuring they submit to the perpetrator’s demands.

Among the various elements that define extortion, it is essential to recognize that:

  1. Extortion is more than just making threats – it involves actual or implied action to secure a desired outcome.
  2. Threats used in extortion must be of a nature that would cause a reasonable person to give into the demands.
  3. Extortion can occur in public, private, and governmental sectors, affecting all levels of society.
  4. The perpetrator’s identity and intended target are often irrelevant, as long as the crime involves elements of coercion, misuse of authority, and the use of violence or threats of violence.

Understanding the elements of extortion can help individuals recognize and protect themselves from this criminal act. By being aware of how coercion, misuse of authority, and threats of violence play a role in extortion, one can be better equipped to handle situations where they may be targeted or identify potential crimes happening in their community.

Blackmail: It’s Not Just About Secrets

While most people associate blackmail with the threat of revealing damaging secrets, the scope of blackmail scenarios extends far beyond that. Blackmail can have widespread consequences for people from all walks of life, targeting both celebrities and ordinary individuals. The power behind these blackmail threats lies in the potential revelation of information that could tarnish one’s social standing, harm their relationships, and jeopardize their career.

From Celebrities to Ordinary Citizens: Blackmail in Action

Blackmail situations often make headlines in the media involving high-profile individuals. But regular people can be just as vulnerable to being targeted in blackmail scenarios. In recent years, various cases have emerged demonstrating the reach and impact that blackmail can have on individuals, regardless of their social status.

  1. Tiger Woods – In 2009, the world-famous golfer faced allegations of his numerous extramarital affairs. As the scandal unfolded, several women claimed to have been offered money by someone in Woods’ camp to remain silent about their relationships.
  2. Average citizens – In 2017, the so-called “sextortion” scheme targeting people through email saw hackers threatening to release compromising photos of individuals unless they paid a ransom. This form of blackmail affected individuals with no real compromising material, demonstrating that anyone can be a target.

“The power behind blackmail lies in the potential revelation of information that could tarnish one’s social standing, harm their relationships, and jeopardize their career.”

As these examples show, blackmail can target a diverse range of people, regardless of fame or fortune. The severity of blackmail scenarios stems not only from the threat of revealing damaging secrets but also from the revelation of information, true or false. It’s crucial to be mindful of the potential consequences of falling victim to blackmail and to take all possible precautions in securing sensitive information and understanding the legal rights available for protection.

How U.S. Federal and State Laws Treat Extortion and Blackmail

The legal treatment of extortion and blackmail in the United States has some nuances depending on the jurisdiction. While federal laws may use the terms interchangeably, referring to these criminal acts as misdemeanors, state laws can vary in their approach. The way each offense is classified can impact the penalties and consequences faced by individuals.

Differing Legal Consequences for Extortion vs. Blackmail

At the federal level, extortion and blackmail are both treated as crimes punishable by law. However, some differences may arise at the state level, with penalties varying by classification and the value involved.

For instance, several states classify both crimes under theft laws. Consequentially, their penalties are dependent on the value of the money, property, or services extorted or coerced. On the other hand, some states regard extortion and blackmail as coercion offenses, basing their penalties on the severity of the threats or harm posed.

Regardless of these variations, judges and prosecutors generally treat extortion and blackmail with similar severity. Possible outcomes include imprisonment, fines, and restitution orders.

State Classification Penalties
California Extortion: Theft Crime
Blackmail: Coercion Crime
Up to 4 years imprisonment and/or up to $10,000 fine
New York Both considered Coercion Crimes Up to 4 years imprisonment and/or up to $5000 fine
Texas Both considered Theft Crimes Varies depending on value involved, ranging from Class C Misdemeanor to First Degree Felony

It is crucial to understand the specifics of each case and the particular state laws to better navigate the legal treatment and consequences associated with these offenses. Consulting a legal professional with experience in extortion and blackmail cases can assist in understanding the nuances of the federal laws and state-level variations in penalties and consequences.

Real-world Examples of Extortion and Blackmail Crimes

Extortion and blackmail can occur in various circumstances, involving different types of victims. In this section, we will explore real-world crime examples, highlighting cases of sexual blackmail and government official corruption.

Real-life instances of these crimes include cases where individuals use sexual imagery or misconduct to blackmail their victims, or where government officials such as building inspectors solicit bribes to perform their duties. These occurrences can attract serious legal repercussions, including attempted extortion charges.

Sexual blackmail often occurs when individuals misuse sensitive material, such as intimate photographs or videos, to threaten their victims into complying with their demands. One widely reported case involved American actress and singer Bella Thorne, who in 2019 revealed that a hacker had threatened her with the release of her personal photos if she didn’t pay a ransom. Thorne bravely defied the blackmailer by publishing the images herself, thereby diminishing the hacker’s leverage.

Government official corruption, on the other hand, involves public officials abusing their power for personal gain. Cases often include soliciting bribes or demanding favors in exchange for approving permits, overlooking violations, or performing other official duties. One notable instance involved Rod Blagojevich, the former Governor of Illinois, who was convicted in 2011 for attempting to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate. Blagojevich’s corruption charges encompassed an array of attempted extortions and bribery schemes.

To further illustrate the prevalence and impacts of these crimes, here is an overview of different types of extortion and blackmail cases:


Type of Crime Victim Perpetrator Outcome
Sexual Blackmail Bella Thorne Hacker Thorne published her photos, defying the blackmailer
Government Corruption Citizens of Illinois Rod Blagojevich, Former Governor of Illinois Blagojevich convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison, later commuted by President Trump
Financial Extortion Small business owners Organized crime groups Victims pay “protection money” to avoid harm to their businesses
Cyber Extortion Various individuals and organizations Ransomware attackers Victims pay ransom to regain access to encrypted data, or risk exposure of sensitive information

Being aware of the different forms that extortion and blackmail can take is crucial to understanding and protecting against these crimes. In the following section, we will discuss measures you can take to safeguard yourself and your assets from potential threats.

Protecting Yourself Against Extortion and Blackmail

In today’s interconnected world, safeguarding against extortion and blackmail is crucial. By taking proactive measures, you can minimize risks and protect your sensitive information. The first step in self-protection is being aware of your rights and the legal implications of these crimes.

Preventing blackmail and extortion often starts with securing sensitive information. Limit the amount of personal data you share online, strengthen your password security, and avoid oversharing any confidential or potentially compromising details. Stay vigilant about potential scams and phishing attempts, and educate yourself on the warning signs of these threats.

To ensure risk avoidance, it’s essential to be prepared for potential threats and to protect your digital assets. Keep your devices and software up-to-date, use encryption for sensitive files, and consider using a VPN to maintain your privacy. Remember, if you ever become a target of extortion or blackmail, it’s important to know that both crimes are taken seriously by the legal system, and resources are available to help you with legal defense and reporting.