Compliance Glossary

Blackmail

Blackmail is an insidious form of coercion, a criminal act that uses threats or violence to force a victim to act against their interests. Coercion crimes differ based on the leverage used against the victim and the demands of the perpetrator. In the case of blackmail, the perpetrator uses the threat of releasing embarrassing or damaging information to demand money or favors from the victim.

What is Blackmail?

Blackmail is an attempt to obtain money, goods, or favors from a person by threatening to publicize information that would incriminate, embarrass, or otherwise socially damage the victim. An incident of blackmail can be characterized by:

  1. The Perpetrator – Any person can commit blackmail, though it is frequently considered a white collar crime. 
  2. The Victim – Anyone can become a victim of blackmail, but the most probable targets are individuals with political power and access to secrets (government or corporate) or financial resources— – things that the perpetrator wants.
  3. The Demand – The perpetrator makes a demand of the victim, which may or not be illegal (it is considered bribery either way). Perpetrators may ask for money, access to corporate or government data or secrets, or they may ask the victim to use their power or influence in a particular way to benefit the perpetrator.
  4. The Threat – The perpetrator uses a threat to coerce the victim into meeting their demands. Common threats used in blackmail include:
    1. Revealing private or embarrassing information about a person.
    2. Revealing sensitive information that could damage an individual financially.
    3. Falsely accusing the victim of a crime.
    4. Reporting the victim for a crime they are believed to have committed.

What is an Example of Blackmail?

Some examples of blackmail could include:

  • A perpetrator connects with an IT manager on a dating site and obtains embarrassing images of them. They threaten to publicize the images unless the manager provides them with access to their organization’s private network and data assets.
  • A perpetrator exploits software vulnerabilities to steal sensitive customer data from an organization. They threaten to expose the organization’s lax security practices and release the stolen data unless they are paid a large sum of money.

What is the Difference Between Extortion and Blackmail?

Extortion and blackmail are both forms of coercion, the practice of using threats to manipulate the actions of a victim. 

Extortion is broadly defined as “coercion for benefit”, and extortionists may accompany their demands with a variety of threats that include violence, kidnapping, destruction of property or reputation, or the misuse of government office. 

Blackmail is a special type of “coercion for benefit”, a subset of extortion that uses the specific threat of releasing damaging information to make demands of the victim.

What are the Consequences of Blackmail?

Penalties and consequences for blackmail vary significantly by jurisdiction.

In the United States, under 18 U.S. Code § 873, a perpetrator who demands something of value under the threat of reporting a crime, or as payment for not reporting a crime, can be fined and imprisoned for up to a year.

In Australia, individuals found guilty of blackmail can be sentenced to up to 15 years incarceration. In Canada, blackmail and extortion are legally equivalent and can result in penalties up to life imprisonment depending on the circumstances.

Why is Blackmail a Crime?

Blackmail is considered a violation of the rights of the individual. The use of threats or leverage to make a demand is intended to deprive the victim of their free will and compel them to act against their own best interests.

While in many cases it may be legal for the perpetrator of a blackmail to publicize the information they are threatening to release, it becomes unlawful coercion when demands are made of the victim. This is the case irrespective of whether the information under threat of release is factually true.

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