If one person uses threats or coercion to get another person to meet specified demands, it is termed extortion. The coercion can involve any type of threat intending to induce fear, from physical violence to threats to accuse the victim of a crime or to reveal private or damaging information. Extortion in any form is a serious crime and is illegal under both state and federal criminal codes. Anyone facing an extortion threat can report the crime to local or federal law enforcement.
These days, there are many extortion scams that find their way into victims' email accounts, including those termed "sextortion," where the coercion involves threats to reveal photos of, or information about, the victim's sexual activities. Cyber extortion occurs when hackers take over the data on a website and demand a ransom to restore it.
The Crime of Extortion
Extortion is a felony crime in most states and under federal law as well. That means that it is the most serious type of crime, with penalties that include a sentence of over a year in state prison. A person commits extortion when they use coercion to force another person to give them money, goods or services. The person making the threat communicates their intention to injure or commit a harmful action against the victim.
The act of coercion can be threats of personal harm or property damage, but other threats also can be extortion, including threats to refuse to testify in a legal case and threats by a government official to make adverse decisions. A typical extortion scenario is when local gangs require shop owners to pay a periodic fee for "protection" to avoid damage to the store.
Extortion or Blackmail?
The crimes of extortion and blackmail both involve coercion, but they are not exactly the same. Blackmail is a type of extortion where people are coerced to take action – most often the payment of money to the blackmailer – by threats to release personal information. The information is usually embarrassing, like the existence of an illegitimate child or an extramarital sexual activity.
However, the information a person uses to blackmail another may also be incriminating, like the details of a crime the person committed. Note that blackmail remains a crime even if the information the person threatens to reveal is genuine criminal activity. While they have a right to report the activity to the police, they do not have the right to extort money in exchange for not reporting it.
In some states, like California, the crimes of blackmail and extortion are covered under the same law and both are felonies with identical penalties. In other states, this is not always the case. Some state laws simply lump blackmail together with extortion since both involve coercion by threats. Attempting extortion or blackmail (unsuccessful extortion or blackmail) is also a crime, but it may be charged as a lesser crime in some areas.
Internet Extortion Scams
These days, many people communicate online, and many extortion scams appear in emails. These emails generally threaten to publicize compromising information about the individual receiving the email unless that person immediately forwards funds to a given location or account. Sometimes the criminal demands bitcoin payment. Often, the scammer actually does not have the information they claim to have, which makes the threat a scam. If the information they threaten to release is sexual in nature, it is sometimes termed "sextortion."
Another type of online extortion involves blocking access to computer files until a ransom is paid. This is known as cyber-extortion. Cyber-extortion occurs when a hacker gets access to a computer system belonging to another person or entity, hijacks data and demands money in order to restore the data. These types of online extortion attacks are on the rise, and some businesses pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to regain access to their data.
Reporting Extortion to Law Enforcement Agencies
Extortion is a crime and can be reported to almost any law enforcement office including local law enforcement. Call the number for the local police department or go into the police station and file a police report. However, depending on the crime, extortion may be better reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Internet Crimes Complaint Center (IC3).
The FBI is a federal investigative and intelligence agency that has the authority to act in a wide range of federal crimes including extortion and cyber-extortion. The FBI website recommends contacting them with information about persons committing extortion, among other serious crimes. Their investigative priorities include public corruption, organized crime, white collar crime and violent crime. The FBI has 56 offices located in major urban areas across the United States that carry out investigations, assess local and regional crime threats, and work closely with state law enforcement.
If the extortion threat occurs on the internet, the easiest way to report this to the FBI is on their web-based portal, the Internet Crimes Complaint Center (IC3). This has been the FBI's reporting agency since 2000 and is an excellent place to report internet extortion, sextortion or cyber extortion. Anyone who is a victim of internet-facilitated extortion can go to the IC3 site and file a complaint. It is quickly reviewed, then forwarded to the appropriate federal, state, local or international law enforcement or regulatory authorities.
Punishment for Extortion
What happens to a criminal who is charged and convicted of extortion? Minimum and maximum penalties vary from state to state, however, extortion is almost always charged as a felony offense. This means that the criminal will likely get over a year of time in prison. Some states impose prison sentences of up to 15 years for extortion.
Other potential penalties for extortion include the imposition of a fine of $10,000 or, in some states, more; restitution to the victim of what they paid under threat of extortion; and probation. Probation sentences may be used for unsuccessful extortion attempts where the victim did not lose any money or property. The convict must comply with the specific probation terms imposed by the court, and failure to do so result in having to serve a prison sentence. In some states and in some situations, the crime of extortion may be classified as a lesser type of crime, a misdemeanor, with lower fines and shorter jail sentences.
Civil Extortion Cases
Some states allow civil lawsuits for extortion. California is one such state. Extortion, defined as obtaining something of value by use of force or fear, can be established in criminal cases by proof of the threat, whether or not the victim complied with the demand. Civil extortion, however, is available only when the victim actually succumbed to the threat and handed over the money, property or item of value demanded.
In California, an extortion victim can win a case in civil court only if they establish that the person made a threat that included a demand for money, property or services. They must also establish that the person knew that the threat was wrong, and that the victim complied with the demand.
If a person brings a civil case for extortion and wins, the defendant does not go to jail or pay fines to the government. Rather, the plaintiff in the civil action gets only money damages. They are entitled to get back the money they paid and also seek punitive damages, an amount of money awarded to them by the court to punish the extortionist for their actions.
Proving Criminal Extortion
All elements of a criminal case must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest burden of proof and it applies whether the criminal case is heard before a judge or a jury. If the trier of fact doesn't think that the prosecution proved an element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the person cannot be convicted of criminal extortion. The elements of the crime of extortion include: 1) a communication that 2) threatens injury to a person/property or some other unwanted outcome 3) with the intent to extort money or pecuniary advantage or to compel a person to do or refrain from doing an act against their will.
Note that the criminal must intend the threat to cause fear in the victim. The threat can be anything intended to cause fear, from personal violence to social stigma to immigration concerns to economic loss. On the other hand, it is not necessary that the victim actually experiences fear.
It is also important to understand that the demand does not have to be for money; it can be coercion of someone to turn over anything they own, whether of pecuniary value or not. The courts have ruled that requiring particular actions under threat of harm is also extortion. For example, when a criminal threatens to injure someone if they do not agree to have sex it is extortion.
Comparing Civil and Criminal Extortion
There is a different standard of proof for criminal and civil extortion cases, which makes it easier to prove civil extortion than criminal extortion. However, a person wishing to sue for civil extortion must do so themselves.
In criminal cases, law enforcement investigates the matter, and the state or federal prosecutor pursues the case. But with civil cases, the victim must file a complaint themselves and pursue it. Note that while they are free to hire an attorney to help them, they will not be able to recover attorney fees in the action.
For civil extortion, a person must prove the same elements as in a criminal case, plus one additional element: that the victim actually paid the money or handed over the property as demanded. If the person did not pay, they cannot sue for civil extortion.
Lower Burden of Proof in Civil Extortion Cases
Despite this extra element, it is easier to win a civil extortion case than a criminal case because, in a civil extortion case, the elements need only be proved by a preponderance of the evidence, a much lower standard than in criminal cases. Because of the lower standard, a person who is acquitted of extortion in criminal court could still be found liable in civil court.
Proving Civil Extortion
How does a person prove civil extortion? Because of the many different extortion scenarios, types of evidence vary. They may include written recordings of the threats, such as emails, text messages or letters.
They can also include oral recordings of the threats, like voicemails, messages left on answering machines or video recordings. Generally, bank records will be used to show an exchange of money. Eyewitness testimony is always great if possible.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.