Extortion is a criminal offense that occurs when a person either obtains money, property, or services from another through coercion, intimidation, or threats of physical harm. It is distinguished from robbery in that extortion involves a written or verbal threat as opposed to a violent one. Blackmail is similar, although it differs in the nature of the threat to the victim. Refraining from doing harm is sometimes euphemistically called "protection," the implication being that the criminal would harm the victim should they not make protection payments.
As with all crimes, the solution lies not just in stricter external methods of security, stiffer punishments, greater efforts by law enforcement, and so forth, but in the internal attitudes and views of life of all people.
Extortion is obtaining money or property by threat to a victim's property or loved ones, intimidation, or false claim of a right. The full extent of the definition of extortion is dependent on what is encompassed in the specific state or nation's robbery laws, which traditionally cover violent seizure of property, whereas extortion is non-violent.
Extortion is defined in such a way as to exclude legal bargaining in which one side may threaten to remove their goods or services should the other side not comply with certain demands.
Extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime groups. The actual obtainment of money or property is not required to commit the offense. Making a threat of violence or a lawsuit which refers to a requirement of a payment of money or property to halt future violence or lawsuit is sufficient to commit the offense. The simple four words "pay up or else" are sufficient to constitute the crime of extortion. An extortionate threat made to another in jest is still extortion.
The term "extortion" is also used metaphorically to refer to usury or to price-gouging, though neither is legally considered extortion. It is also often used loosely to refer to everyday situations where one person feels indebted against their will, to another, in order to receive an essential service or avoid legal consequences. For example, certain lawsuits, fees for services such as banking, automobile insurance, gasoline prices, and even taxation, have all been labeled "extortion" by people with various social or political beliefs.
Extortion is distinguished from robbery. In "strong arm" robbery, the offender takes goods from the victim with use of immediate force. In "robbery" goods are taken or an attempt is made to take the goods against the will of another—with or without force. A bank robbery or extortion of a bank can be committed by a letter handed by the criminal to the teller. In extortion, the victim is threatened to hand over goods, or else damage to their reputation or other harm or violence against them may occur. Under Federal law extortion can be committed with or without the use of force and with or without the use of a weapon. A key difference is that extortion always involves a written or verbal threat whereas robbery can occur without any verbal or written threat.
Blackmail is the act of threatening to reveal information about a person unless the threatened party fulfills certain demands. This information is usually of an embarrassing or socially damaging nature. The word is derived from the word for tribute paid by English and Scottish border dwellers to Border Reivers in return for immunity from raids. Blackmail meant payment of a double rent—rent was paid to the landowner and rent was paid to the blackmailer. Since it was often paid in kind in oats, barley, or meal, it came to be called "black meal." The opposite of this tribute (reditus nigri, or "blackmail") is blanche firmes or reditus albi, or "white rent" (denoting payment by silver).
Many debt collectors have been accused of blackmail, but those pursuing legal debts are generally able to justify their threats of repossession because, even though unpleasant to the victim, this is a legitimate use of lawful civil law remedies. By contrast, those chasing illegal debts (a gambling debt, for example, which was not until recently enforceable under English law) who back up their demands with the threat of bodily injury cannot avail themselves of the same defense. There will also be liability even though the debts are legally owed if the menaces are of a criminal nature, such as an assault or more serious violence or criminal damage. The offense criminalizes the means adopted by the creditors as the social problem to be deterred, rather than the evasion by the debtors. The creditors are expected to use the standard judicial remedies to recover what is owing.
In a broader sense, blackmail is an offer to refrain from any action which would be legal or normally allowed, and is thus distinguished from extortion.
In the United States, extortion may also be committed as a federal crime across a computer system, telephone, by mail, or in using any instrument of "interstate commerce." Extortion requires that the individual sent the message "willingly" and "knowingly" as elements of the crime. The message only has to be sent (but does not have to reach the intended recipient) to commit the crime of extortion.
The "badger game" is an extortion scheme, often perpetrated on married men, in which the victim or "mark" is deliberately coerced into a compromising position then threatened with public exposure of his acts unless blackmail money is paid. There are two competing explanations for the origin of the term "badger game." One explanation is that the term originated in the practice of badger baiting. Another says that it derives its name from the state of Wisconsin (the Badger State), where the con allegedly either originated or was popularized.
This con has been around since at least the early nineteenth century. There are several variations, but the most common form involves a man, preferably a lonely, married man of some financial means from out of town, who is marked by the con artists. An attractive woman who is part of the con goes up to him and begins flirting. The woman entices the man to a private place with the intent of coercing him into a compromising position, usually involving some sort of sexual act. An accomplice gathers evidence of the act by way of photographs, video, or some other means. The accomplice then goes to the mark and threatens to expose him unless blackmail money is paid. The woman may also claim that the sexual encounter was non-consensual and threaten the victim with a rape charge. It can also involve such things as the threat of a sexual harassment charge which may endanger the victim's career. In the days before photography or video, the accomplice would usually burst into the room in mid-act and claim to be the woman's husband, father, older brother, or such, and demand justice. The con was particularly effective in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth century when the social repercussions of adultery were much greater.
Non-sexual versions of this con also exist, particularly among ethnic or religious groups with strong social taboos. For example, enticing a Jew or Muslim to eat pork or coercing a Mormon to gamble or drink alcohol. The con-artist would then threaten to expose the mark's activity to their community.
Prominent Examples of Extortion
The most famous practitioners of extortion have been organized crime syndicates such as the Italian and Russian mafias, and the Japanese Yakuza. Each reached their apex of at specific times: the Italian mafias in the early twentieth century and the Russian mafia towards the end of the Soviet era. The nature of the crime as demanding protection money from local businesses seems to keep the scale of the crime relatively low.
- Extortion Law.com. Retrieved June 9, 2007.
- United States Code 875, United States Code 876.
- The Border Reivers: Blackmail and Kidnapping. Retrieved June 17, 2007.
- United States Code, Sections 1341, 1343 and 1346.
- “Organized Crime: Italian Organized Crime—Overview,” Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved June 15, 2007.
- Russian Organized Crime, Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved June 15, 2007.
- Allen, Michael. 2005. Textbook on Criminal Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press ISBN 0199279187
- Criminal Law Revision Committee, 8th Report. Theft and Related Offences. Cmnd. 2977
- Griew, Edward. Theft Acts 1968 & 1978. Sweet & Maxwell: London. ISBN 0421199601
- Ormerod, David. 2005. Smith and Hogan Criminal Law. London: LexisNexis. ISBN 0406977305
- Smith, J. C. 1997. Law of Theft. London: LexisNexis. ISBN 0406895457
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