What is the Difference Between Extortion and Blackmail?

Letterman, Travolta, and the Laws of Extortion and Blackmail.

Adam Freedman
January 21, 2010

Last year saw some high profile blackmail cases, including those involving talk show host Dave Letterman and actor John Travolta. The crime of extortion is reportedly on the rise--and you don’t have to be famous to be targeted by a blackmailer. You just need to have something that somebody else wants. In this article, I’ll explain the terms “extortion” and “blackmail,” as well as what to do if somebody tries to put the squeeze on you.

Extortion and Blackmail are on the Rise

According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, the prolonged economic downturn is leading to an upswing in a very old form of entrepreneurial activity: extortion. In October 2009, a TV producer allegedly tried to extort $2 million from David Letterman by threatening to reveal Letterman’s affair with a female subordinate.  

Also in 2009, actor John Travolta said that a paramedic in the Bahamas had tried to blackmail him and his wife by threatening to imply that the Travoltas were partially responsible for the death of their son, Jett. According to the Wall Street Journal, private security firms are seeing a rise in extortion cases involving wealthy, but not necessarily famous, victims.

What is Extortion?

The use of threats to extract money from people is a crime in the United States-- and in most other countries, as far as I know--but the terminology can be confusing. The traditional common law definition of extortion is actually rather narrow: it refers to the unlawful taking by a government official of money or property--either by threats, or simply in return for performing some official act. In 2008, for example, Milwaukee alderman Michael McGee was found guilty of extortion for taking money in return for approving liquor licenses.

For the purposes of this crime, it’s no defense for the government official to claim that he or she accepted the money merely as a tip of gratuity--as in, “Thank you, and don’t forget to tip your alderman.”

What is Blackmail?

In contrast to extortion, the term “blackmail” encompasses threats made by private persons to gain anything of value. And generally, a “thing of value” is broadly defined--it includes not only money and property, but also sexual favors.

What About Larceny?

Some US states have laws that expand the definition of extortion to include blackmail by private individuals. In other states extortion remains limited to  public officials whereas similar behavior by private persons is covered by other criminal statutes. For example, Dave Letterman’s alleged tormentor was charged not with extortion but with larceny, which, in New York State, is the crime that covers blackmail by private persons.

Can Extortion be a Federal Crime?

So far I’ve been discussing state laws, but extortion can also get you in trouble with the Feds. Under a federal law known as the Hobbs Act, it is a crime for any person to use interstate commerce (which can include such things as telephones and mail) to commit extortion. The Hobbs Act defines extortion to include both demands made by private individuals as well as by government officials. It is also a crime under federal law for any person to demand money or property in return for not informing the authorities of any violation of federal law.

Which Kinds of Threats are Illegal?

One common characteristic of extortion is the use of threats, that is, an express intention to inflict injury, loss, or some other bad consequence on another person. The threat has to be sufficiently plausible and imminent that it could convince a reasonable person to give in to the blackmailer’s demands. In addition, there has to be some evidence that the threat was actually made for the purpose of obtaining money or property.  Keep in mind, however, that threatening somebody with physical violence is generally a crime in and of itself, whether or not the threat is intended to obtain anything of value.

What to Do When Someone Threatens You

No matter what you call it, if somebody is threatening you to gain something of value, then you’re probably the victim of a crime.

As a practical matter, you don’t need to memorize the distinctions between extortion, blackmail, larceny, and so forth. Just know this: if somebody is threatening you in an attempt to gain money or something else of value, then you are probably the victim of a crime.

According to that Wall Street Journal report, security experts advise victims of attempted extortion to seek help immediately, since blackmailers are rarely satisfied with the first payment. They keep coming back for more. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that if the police or federal investigators are notified, then the matter will likely become public.  Of course, if you’re like Dave Letterman and have your own TV show, you can scoop everyone and make it public yourself!

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