What is extortion?

Extortion is a crime in which one person forces another person to do something against his will, generally to give up money or other property, by threat of violence, property damage, damage to the person’s reputation, or extreme financial hardship. Extortion involves the victim’s consent to the crime, but that consent is obtained illegally. 

Examples of Extortion

A classic example of extortion is the “protection” scheme where figures with ties to organized crime demand that shop owners pay for their protection to prevent something bad (such as an assault on the shopkeeper or damage to his or her store or goods) from happening.  Many states also consider blackmail, where a victim is forced to pay someone to prevent them from releasing information that could damage their reputation or their business, to be a form of extortion.

Typically, as in those examples, extortion involves threats of future violence or harm rather than immediate violence or harm, but extortion can involve immediate violence.  For example, it would still be extortion if the offenders in the above example assaulted the shopkeeper to force him to pay them the required protection money instead of threatening to do so in the future. In such cases, extortion becomes very similar to robbery. 

Differences Between Extortion and Robbery

One distinction between extortion and robbery is that extortion requires that the offender make a verbal or written threat, while robbery does not.  Since extortion rarely involves immediate harm, however, the crimes typically can be distinguished because a robber uses immediate threats and force to steal the victim’s property, while in extortion, the victim willingly hands over his money or personal property in order to avoid future damage or violence.

Understanding the Degrees of Extortion

All fifty states have varying laws regarding extortion, with most states classifying it as a felony. Some states charge the crime as a theft offense, while others call it “attempted extortion,” “extortion in the first degree,” or “extortion in the second degree.” In the few states that split extortion into degrees, extortion in the first degree usually involves threats of bodily harm or physical confinement, while extortion in the second degree applies to threatening to accuse a person of a crime or to expose a secret. 

Penalties for Extortion

Penalties for extortion vary widely in different states and depend on the severity of the threats involved, but sentences generally range between 2 to 4 years. However, many states allow for sentences of 5, 10, or even 20 years. If any instrument of interstate commerce (such as the mail, a phone, or a computer) is used in commission of the crime, it also becomes a federal crime with a fine or sentence of up to 20 years. 

Proving Extortion

The specific elements required to prove extortion differ between states, but the general requirements are that the offender maliciously (not mistakenly) make a verbal, written or printed threat with the intent to extort something from the victim or to compel the victim to do something against his or her will. Generally, it is irrelevant whether or not the offender actually succeeds in the attempted extortion. Once the threat is made, the offender has committed extortion. In some jurisdictions, and under the federal extortion definition, the victim does not even have to hear or receive the threat in order for the offender to be charged with extortion. 

Extortion does not usually require that the offender threaten to commit a criminal act as long as the threat attempts to obtain money, property, or to force the victim to act against their will. For example, a threat to bring criminal charges or file a police report unless money is paid is still extortion, even though the offender may have every right to file a police report. By coupling the legal act with the illegal act of demanding payment to not act, the offender has committed extortion. Note, however, that a threat to file a civil lawsuit typically is not considered extortion even if that lawsuit is frivolous. 

The threat also does not have to be directed at the victim. It is still extortion if the threat is directed towards the victim’s family or if it threatens to release information about some third party the victim seeks to protect.