What is Extortion?
Extortion is a criminal offense which occurs when a person unlawfully obtains either money, property or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion. Refraining from doing harm is sometimes called protection. Extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime groups. The actual collection 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. Exaction refers not only to extortion or the unlawful demanding and obtaining of something through force, but also means the infliction of something such as pain and suffering.
Extortion should not be confused with blackmail. While both are illegal threats, blackmail is the threat to do something that would otherwise be legal to do, such as reveal information about the blackmail victim that is embarrassing or incriminating.
Extortion, on the other hand, is a threat to perform an action that is, in and of itself, illegal.
The crime may also be committed as a federal crime across a computer system, phone, 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.
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 this case, 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 the criminal act 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 (refer to U.S.C. 875 and U.S.C. 876).
The term extortion is often 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 “legalized extortion” by people with various social or political beliefs.
Neither extortion nor blackmail require a threat of a criminal act, such as violence, merely a threat used to elicit actions, money, or property from the object of the crime. Such threats include the filing of lawsuits, reports (true or not) of criminal behavior to the police, revelation of damaging facts (such as pictures of the object of the extortion in a compromising position), etc.
For more legal definitions, visit our Glossary of Legal and Investigation Terms.