What is Extortion?

Definition:

Extortion is a crime in which the perpetrator forces the victim to do or provide something of value through threats or other illegal means.

🤔 Understanding extortion

Extortion is a crime that involves threatening and instilling fear in a victim in an attempt to get something of value. The type of threat can include legal action, physical violence, publicly releasing private or scandalous information (blackmail), reporting someone to immigration authorities, and more. Typically, people commit extortion to get money, but they may also try to obtain property, power, or sexual acts (sexual extortion). Extortion is generally classified as a felony, but some states consider certain forms of extortion to be a misdemeanor. Perpetrators may face fines, restitution, probation, or jail time.

Example

Imagine Ray owns a successful pizza shop. One day, the Mafia shows up and says that, if he doesn’t pay $500 a month for protection, they’ll murder his family. Because of this threat, Ray gives in to their demands. Ray was the victim of extortion.

Takeaway

Extortion is kind of like putting someone in a chokehold...

When you’ve got a tight grip around someone’s neck, the person generally can’t escape without tapping out or saying, “Uncle!” Similarly, victims of extortion can walk away only if they “tap out” and give perpetrators what they want. If you’re forced to do something against your will through a threat, such as the pain of a chokehold, that’s extortion.

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What is extortion?

Extortion is a crime that occurs when one party threatens to harm the victim in order to get them to do something, such as hand over property or money. Extortion is generally classified as a felony, but it can also be a misdemeanor.

Extortion can involve the threat of violence or physical injury. For example, organized crime groups, such as the Mafia, can require store owners in certain areas to pay a fee for “protection” — which really means protection from the Mafia itself. If owners don’t pay, the Mafia might threaten to harm or kill them or their loved ones. (This form of extortion is related to the crime of racketeering.)

Extortion can also be a white-collar crime. For example, a manufacturer could threaten to report a brick and mortar retailer to the authorities for tax evasion if it switches to a different supplier. Even if it’s true that the business committed tax evasion, using that as a threat for personal or business gain is considered extortion.

Alternatively, a hacker could infect someone’s computer with ransomware and threaten to delete files unless the victim pays them off.

Blackmail is also a form of extortion. For instance, someone could threaten to release damaging information about a public official if the official doesn’t award a contract to a certain firm or implement a specific policy.

No matter what form extortion takes, it relies on threats and fear to get something of value.

What are the types of extortion?

Different forms of extortion include:

  • Blackmail occurs when someone threatens to release a piece of true information that would be damaging to a person or group. The information can be embarrassing, incriminating, or otherwise harmful. The threat can involve sharing information publicly (like posting sexually explicit photos online) or with a specific party (like telling the victim’s wife that he’s cheating on her).
  • Bribery is a crime in which the perpetrator offers money, property, or anything of value to someone in a public or legal office in an attempt to influence their actions. For example, individuals or companies may offer money to public officials as a way to control their policy decisions.
  • Cyber extortion happens when someone threatens to cause harm to a victim’s digital data or computer systems. One common example is using ransomware to lock a victim’s files and demand money to release them. Another form of cyber extortion involves shutting down a company’s servers using a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack and demanding money to halt the attack.
  • Sexual extortion (sextortion) occurs when the perpetrator uses blackmail, the threat of force, cyber extortion, or any other form of extortion to procure a sexual act from the victim.

What are the elements of extortion?

Various jurisdictions have different criteria for what is considered extortion. For example, at the federal level, the Hobbs Act requires that: 1. The defendant induced or attempt to induce the victim to give up property or property rights. “Property” refers to anything valuable that can be a source of wealth. 2. The defendant used or attempt to use the victim's reasonable fear of physical injury or economic harm in order to get the victim to agree to give up property. 3. The defendant's conduct actually or potentially obstructed, delayed, or affected interstate or foreign commerce in some (realistic) way or degree. 4. The defendant's actual or threatened use of force, violence, or fear was wrongful (not legitimate).

However, Wisconsin’s extortion laws, for example, only state two elements: 1. A malicious threat to accuse or do injury. 2. The intent to extort money or any pecuniary (money-related) advantage or compel a person to do or omit an act against his will.

Because of the many potentially conflicting statutes, it can be hard to precisely define what constitutes extortion — Even the courts disagree sometimes.

For example, in the case of Sekhar v. United States, a federal district court and an appeals court both found that threatening to release information about someone’s supposed extra-marital affair unless the person changed an investment recommendation was extortion. However, the Supreme Court eventually overturned the ruling, stating that there was no “transferable” property at stake — just an investment recommendation.

Still, a few elements generally come into play in extortion:

  • An attempt to get something of value: Although extortion generally concerns money and property, perpetrators can also use extortion to get something less tangible, like sexual acts, the passage of government policies, or a promotion at work.
  • Threatening communications: Whether it’s a threat to get violent, release damaging information, or commit any other crime, all forms of extortion have threats at their core.
  • Proof of harmful intent: For a threat to become a crime of extortion, there generally must be evidence that the perpetrator intended to get something of value. That doesn’t always mean the perpetrator has to describe this intent explicitly. Instead, it can be based on context or anything else a judge and jury think proves intent.
  • Instilling fear in the victim: No matter what the threat is, it must be enough to reasonably create fear in the victim. Simply threatening to sue someone in passing during an argument generally wouldn’t be considered extortion. However, a reasonably believable threat of force might. Context matters, and the final verdict is up to the judge and jury.

Is extortion a felony or misdemeanor?

In the US, the crime of extortion is generally considered a felony. However, some states define both felony and misdemeanor extortion.

California, for example, generally considers extortion a felony, but attempted extortion can be charged as a misdemeanor. The distinction depends on how far into the crime the perpetrator has gone and the judge’s discretion. If the person attempting extortion decides to stop before going too far, he or she may only face misdemeanor charges.

If extortion is committed in interstate commerce or the threat is communicated across state lines, then it becomes a federal crime. Under federal law, extortion is always a felony.

What are extortion laws and penalties in the US?

Extortion laws vary from state to state. Many states consider the crime a felony and define extortion as involving a threat made in pursuit of gaining something of value. However, the punishment and penalties for extortion can vary widely.

Under federal law, for example, some forms of extortion are punishable with up to 20 years of prison time. Meanwhile, in California, extortion is only punishable by up to four years behind bars and a $10,000 fine.

Some jurisdictions may also require people convicted of extortion to pay restitution or the victim’s legal fees. Probation is also a potential punishment.

How is extortion proven?

There is no single way to prove extortion. Sometimes, the case is pretty clear cut: There’s a recording of a phone call that says, “Pay me $10,000, or I’ll hurt your family.” In other cases, it’s less explicit, but equally clear — Think of the scene in The Godfather where the movie producer wakes up with a horse head in his bed.

In short, extortion is proven when there’s no reasonable doubt that someone was trying to force another person to hand over something of value against their will. The details of how this can occur depend on the circumstances and the discretion of the judge and jury.

In general, there needs to be proof that the perpetrator communicated a threat, instilled fear, and hoped to get something of value as a result.

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