Compliance Glossary

Extortion

What is Extortion?

Extortion takes place when an entity (an individual or an organization) attempts to obtain money, property, or other assets from a target using threats or coercion. The entity may threaten the target with violence, injury, or the disclosure of a secret that would socially, financially, or legally damage the target.

What are Examples of Extortion?

Extortion laws today cover the actions of both private citizens and public officials. Let’s look at examples of extortion from each context:

  • A police officer suspects that individuals in his neighborhood are involved in a criminal enterprise. Instead of conducting an investigation, the officer sends the group a letter threatening to accuse them of a crime and demanding a payment of $50,000 in exchange for his silence.
  • A cybercriminal meets a private sector employee on a dating site and discovers their home address and place of employment. The criminal threatens to hurt the employee’s family unless they pay cash or relinquish corporate secrets or data.
  • An activist contacts a politician and threatens to target their family unless they enact (or veto) a specific piece of legislation.

Is Extortion a Crime?

Extortion is a coercive crime that uses a threat to force the target to act against their best interests, usually by relinquishing their property to the perpetrator. In the United States, extortion is criminal at both the state and federal levels.

On the state level, extortion is illegal in all 50 states and is usually classified as a Class B felony. Punishments for extortion can include a $250,000 fine and up to 25 years in prison.

On the federal level, crime of extortion is created by sections 872, 875, 876, 877, 878, and 880 of the U.S. Code Title 18, Chapter 41 – Extortion and Threats. Here’s what’s covered by each section:

  • Section 872 makes it illegal for officers or employees of the United States to commit acts of extortion while representing themselves in an official capacity.
  • Sections 875, 876, and 877 make it illegal to transmit extortionate threats through the United States postage system. 
  • Section 878 makes it illegal to extort or threaten any foreign officials, official guests of the United States, or other internationally protected persons.
  • Section 880 makes it illegal to receive or possess the proceeds of extortion.

There’s also the Hobbs Act of 1946, which makes it illegal to commit any act of extortion that obstructs interstate commerce.

What Qualifies as Extortion?

Extortion is regulated at the state level, so the exact requirements for proving an act of extortion differs from state to state.

In general, an act qualifies as extortion if the following elements are satisfied:

  1. The perpetrator made a threat against the target.
  2. The perpetrator intended to leverage the threat against the target to obtain his or her property or influence his or her actions.
  3. The target consented and complied with the perpetrator’s demands because of the threat.

What is the Difference Between Extortion and Blackmail?

Both blackmail and extortion are coercive crimes that deprive the victim of their free will through the use of threats, compelling them to act against their own best interests. While blackmail and extortion are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not defined in the same way. 

The key difference between blackmail and extortion is the nature of the threats applied against the victim. 

Blackmail is characterized by threats of revealing socially or financially damaging information about the victim. In a blackmail case, the action being threatened would often be legal on its own, but the threat itself and the attempt to deprive the victim of property are not.

The crime of extortion includes all types of threats, including threats to reveal embarrassing information, threats to accuse the victim of a crime, and threats of violence or injury against the victim or their loved ones.

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