What Is Extortion?
By Joan Whetzel
Extortion, a form of blackmail, only works when at least two people are involved - one extortionist and one victim. It also involves threats and intimidation on the part of the extortionist who is looking relieve the victim of his money or property. The victim could be a business, but is more frequently, an individual. The extortionist might be a public official, a local tough guy, or the victim's personal adversary. There is always an direct correlation between the timing of the threat or the intimidation and the profits obtained by the extortionist.
The Extortionist Threatens Harm
To prove extortion occurred, the prosecution must demonstrate that the victim was threatened with physical harm, and that he or she understood that the harm was waiting for them just around the corner should they fail to comply with the extortionist's demands. These threats of harm may be directed at the victim or at a member of his or her family, one of the victim's friends, the victim's home or business, or a threat to destroy the victim's reputation. The extortionist may even expand the scope of his or her threat to include any witnesses willing to testify at trial.
The Extortionist Threatens Exposure
Exposing someone's illegal, immoral, or unethical deeds is not against the law. If it was, there would be a whole lot of investigative journalists in jail right now. What makes the threat of exposure an act of extortion is that the extortionist lets the victim know that his or her transgressions will be made public unless money changes hands. The extortionist can't use, as an affirmative defense, the claim that the indiscretions in question actually occurred, since the victim was forced to buy the extortionist's silence in order to protect his or her reputation.
Timing the Threats
These threats don't involve an actual "gun to the head"; they are only verbal threats. Yet they feel just as frightening and real as an actual gun to the head because the demand for payment is immediate, as is the subsequent exposure or harm. "Pay me or I kill you" (read in "or I harm you, your family, friends, home, business or reputation). The threat is timed so that the victim has very little time to collect the money before the threat of harm becomes reality. The amount of time between the payment and the date and time of the threatened harm is what proves an extortion in court.
How Threats Are Made
There are any number of ways to threaten extortion, but the main avenues include: face-to-face, snail mail, e-mail, or telephone threats. The stereotypical mafia-style threats of sending the victim a package containing a dead rat, for example, might also be used. It doesn't have to be a dead rat, of course; it could be anything that will scare the victim into submission.
Extortion by Public Officials
The title "public official" includes anyone in a position of authority (police officer, prosecutor, building inspector, Child Protective Services agent, etc.) who use their position to take money a victim disguised as fines or fees. This form of extortion requires that the fines or fees be collected in one of the following ways:
1. It must be an amount that is higher than what the victim actually owes.
2. It is an illegal fine or fee, but the victim still feels forced to shell out the money.
3. It is due immediately, according to the public official, when the fee will not come due until a much later date.
4. The public official receive payments for repairs, help, assistance, or benefits that were never provided.
Extorting Financial Institutions
It is possible to extort money from a business, like a financial institution. The extortionist promises to harm the owner, his or her employees, or any of the institution's agents, or to destroy property that the business owns or manages, unless the business owner forks over some money.
Find Law. Extortion.
Van Wagner and Wood. Extortion.
Record Site Reviews. Extortion - Threat and Coercion for Personal Gain
Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Extortion - Elements of Offense.