A protection racket is a scheme where a person extorts money from a victim by suggesting that she needs “protection” from property damage or attacks. In exchange for money, the perpetrator promises to keep the victim safe, recover any stolen property, and collect reparations for damaged property. The person the victim needs protection from is usually the person running the scheme. If people refuse to pay up, they may experience harassment, property destruction, and other problems.
The origins of the protection racket are very old and this practice is particularly common in areas with high levels of organized crime. Usually, individual gangs or criminal groups stake out their own territory, expecting others to stay out of it. The engineer of the protection racket sends representatives around to a community to intimidate business owners, making it clear that they should pay for “protection” or suffer the consequences.
Sometimes, the protection racket does come with some actual protection. Members of criminal organizations are usually familiar with other groups, and if someone who is paying protection experiences a robbery or another problem, a representative may investigate and resolve the situation. Usually, this occurs in settings where people want to reinforce their claim to specific territory and do not like other criminal organizations moving in on their area. More commonly, “bag men” collect the protection money at set intervals. In exchange for payments, members of the criminal organization leave the victim alone, but do not move to defend the victim against rival criminals.
Victims of a protection racket can be in an uncomfortable position. If they do not make the payments, they may be harassed out of business. They may not be able to approach law enforcement because they fear retaliation. Sometimes, law enforcement officers are affiliated with criminal organizations and in other cases they may be powerless to take action to prevent retaliation if a business owner wants to report the extortion and stay in the same area.
Organized crime units investigate activities like protection rackets, as they often reflect a larger trend within a given area. Their work can take months or years as they attempt to map out the entire structure of the organization so they can go after the head, rather than just taking down small players. Sometimes, this involves not actively pursuing specific criminal behavior because it might tip members of the organization off to a law enforcement investigation and could jeopardize the case.