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What is Blackmail?
Blackmail is a criminal offense consisting of the wrongful exaction of money by threats or duress. Although in common parlance its meaning is virtually the same as extortion, blackmail is distinguishable under the terms of some statutes. It is usually defined as the actual or attempted obtaining of money or property from another by putting him in fear of being accused of a crime or of other disgraceful or immoral conduct. Extortion, on the other hand, generally is confined to the unlawful taking of money or property in connection with, or by virtue of, public office or official position.
Blackmail is confined by some statutes to letters and other written communications, oral threats being classified as a type of extortion. The Federal Criminal Code (18 U.S.C. 873) provides that "whoever, under a threat of informing, or as a consideration for not informing, against any violation of any law of the United States, demands or receives any money or other valuable thing" is guilty of blackmail.
The threat which is essential to blackmail need not inspire actual fear or be reasonably calculated to arouse terror, so long as it is conveyed with the unlawful hope of gain specified in the applicable statute. Any clear language may convey the threat, exact words not being required. Suggestion or innuendo may be sufficient in some cases. Truth of the charge of which the blackmailer has threatened to accuse his victim is not a defense to the crime.
Since intent to extort money or property is an element of the crime, the communication of a threat solely as a joke or to give annoyance does not constitute blackmail. In some states, a separate statutory offense of sending threatening letters or making threats has been created in order to penalize threats that are not made to extort money.
A demand for the payment of a debt or the return of property wrongfully taken, together with a threat of legal action to enforce the claim, is not blackmail, because of the absence of the necessary unlawful intent. Similarly, some courts hold that a threat to prosecute is not unlawful, if its purpose is to obtain reasonable compensation for property criminally destroyed or if the threat forms part of an honest effort by a creditor to collect a debt.
There is a lack of agreement on the origin of the word "blackmail." Some authorities say that it is derived from the Old French maille, meaning a small coin; others see its origin in the German Mahl, a tribute, or the Gaelic mal, a rent. The "black" is variously stated by philologists to refer to the base metal in which the payment was historically made, copper, rather than silver, or "white" metal, and to the illegal nature of the payment.
In England blackmail originally was rent paid in labor, grain, or money of base metal, as distinguished from silver coins ("white mail"). Later the term meant tribute in money, cattle, grain, or commodities exacted in southern Scot-nd and in northern England from persons who wanted protection of their property from pillage by brigands. In 1601 the English made both demand for and payment of such blackmail a felony, but the practice persisted until England and Scotland were united in 1707.