A large, intimidating man walks into a profitable liquor store in the heart of the city, not to buy anything but to offer "protection" to the shopkeeper (for a weekly fee, of course). She declines, but he insists. The man casually lists the names of her four children and states he wouldn't want anything "bad" to happen to them. The shopkeeper relents, agreeing to pay him a set amount each week.
Per the above illustration, extortion is the crime of obtaining money or property by threat to a victim's property or loved ones, intimidation, or false claim of a right. The following is an overview of the crime.
Extortion: Definition and Overview
Most states define extortion as the gaining of property or money by almost any kind of force or threat of violence, property damage, harm to reputation, or unfavorable government action. While usually viewed as a form of theft/larceny, extortion differs from robbery in that the threat in question does not pose an imminent physical danger to the victim.
Extortion is a felony in all states. Blackmail is a form of extortion in which the threat is to expose embarrassing and damaging information to family, friends, or the public. Inherent in this common form of extortion is the threat to expose the details of someone's private lives to the public unless money is exchanged.
Another common extortion crime is offering "protection" to a businessman to keep his business safe from burglary or vandalism. For example, Dan goes to Victor's place of business and demands monthly payment from Victor for the business's "protection" from vandalism and after-hours theft. Fearing that he or his business will suffer harm otherwise, Victor agrees to pay Dan.
Extortion can take place over the telephone, via mail, text, email or other computer or wireless communication. If any method of interstate commerce is used in the extortion, it can be a federal crime.
Virtually all extortion statutes require that a threat must be made to the person or property of the victim. Threats to harm the victim's friends or relatives may also be included. It is not necessary for a threat to involve physical injury. It may be sufficient to threaten to accuse another person of a crime or to expose a secret that would result in public embarrassment or ridicule. The threat does not have to relate to an unlawful act.
Other types of threats sufficient to constitute extortion include those to harm the victim's business and those to either testify against the victim or withhold testimony necessary to his or her defense or claim in an administrative proceeding or a lawsuit. Many statutes also provide that any threat to harm another person in his or her career or reputation is extortion.
Cyber Extortion: A Growing Threat
While you believe that extortion only happens in smoky back rooms or among shady Mafia characters, it can happen right here at your fingertips. Cyber extortion, a new way for criminals to take hold of your property, is on the rise in a modern society.
Cyber criminals use a tool known as "ransomware" to encrypt a user’s important files and documents, making them unreadable, until a ransom is paid. No specific business or individual appears to be the target, but cyber criminals tend to focus their efforts on against larger-scale targets such as corporations with large amounts of data and deeper pockets.
Questions About Extortion? Reach Out to an Attorney
If you're having heated discussions with a business associate, a client, a friend or a family member and your words might be taken as a threat to gain money or other advantage, then the police could arrest you and charge you with extortion. If you're facing a criminal investigation, your best move is to immediately contact a local criminal defense attorney to better understand your situation and your options.