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What is Extortion?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Extortion is a crime that involves the illegal acquisition of money, property, or favors through the use of force, or the threat of force. Historically, the term was defined as an abuse of privilege on the part of a public official who used his or her position to get money or favors, but today, people at all levels of society could potentially commit extortion. Penalties vary, depending on the specifics of the crime. In some countries, it is treated especially seriously because it is linked with organized crime, and sometimes special laws are designed to make it easier to prosecute and punish extortion.

To the casual ear, extortion can sound very similar to blackmail, in which people use a threat to demand payments or favors, and robbery, in which a criminal takes something by force. However, extortion is slightly different from both of these crimes. In blackmail, someone threatens to do something which is entirely legal, such as publishing a set of photographs, with the blackmailee offering payment to avoid exposure and humiliation. Extortion is entirely illegal, as it involves threats of violence or other illegal acts.

In a robbery, the violence is very real, and also very immediate. In extortion, violence may never progress beyond the stage of being a threat, assuming that the person being extorted pays up. For example, if someone is threatened at gunpoint and ordered to surrender all valuables, this is a robbery. If, on the other hand, a criminal strolls into a shop and threatens to shoot the clerk's family unless the criminal receives a share of the store's income each week, this is extortion.

Organized crime is perhaps the most famous user of extortion. For example, members of the Mafia have historically demanded “protection money” from businesses, suggesting that if the businesses don't pay up, they may be robbed or otherwise harassed. It has also been used to keep community groups in fear so that they will not seek prosecution for members of a criminal organization. However, individuals may also commit extortion, as may officials, especially in corrupt agencies or governments.

In order to prove charges of extortion, a prosecutor must be able to prove either that an illegal threat was made, or that goods or services were received in exchange for such a threat. Proving such charges can sometimes be very difficult, as people may be too intimidated to testify.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon312751 — On Jan 08, 2013

I hired a lawyer to represent me in a case and on the day of trial, he told me if I did not plead guilty I would have to hire a new lawyer, yet he took all my money and refused to represent me in any fashion. Then he brought a charge that involved another from another jurisdiction against me. Is this legal?

By anon306541 — On Nov 30, 2012

My husband and his girlfriend keep sending me messages and threatening me. They are disturbing my family. His girlfriend told me if I don't talk with her she will show some of my photos to my family. What I can do about that?

By anon265480 — On May 01, 2012

My ex husband has proof that I stole money from my job, and he is threatening me that if I do not give him full custody of the kids and other things and until I do them, I will not get the proof and that he will take it to my ex boss and have me arrested.

Is this something I should get an attorney for? Or get a restraining order to stop him from giving the information up.

By anon134135 — On Dec 13, 2010

Dear anon76746: I am not an attorney or law enforcement agent, however it would seem that the appropriate next step would be to contact the authorities in the city where the woman resides.

Someone at the local police station or sheriff's office should be able to give you answers as to a) whether this rises to the level of a case that they would investigate or b) whether they know of another agency that would make determinations in these kinds of cases (the FBI, for example). I hope this helps.

By anon125522 — On Nov 09, 2010

I have employees threatening to ruin my business if I don't double their salary.

By anon76746 — On Apr 12, 2010

I'm a seller of a bag that costs $550. I agreed to have it shipped upon receipt of payment, however, for some reasons i was not able to ship it. Days passed and i know the buyer will think i stole her money. All along, she did what she had to do to track me: my address, cellphone number, school, my job, my kids, and even bank accounts. Then one day someone called me claiming he was from the FBI, and told me all about this information they know.

I explained my part that i had really no intention of keeping the money. I told them that i can have it wired on their account immediately if they want, just to prove my intentions. the next day i go ahead and paid them whatever they gave me, even paid for any transaction fee in the bank so as they get the exact money.

since then she never stops threatening me, that she will make it public and all, and now she extorts me of the payment she made through her investigation process. the fees she paid for her FBI agents, lawyers and even personal investigator. She even told me it would cost $500.

I'm a professional person, married and with a reputable background. I don't want this thing to happen, all her threats of ruining my reputation.

is this some sort of extortion?

is there anything i can for her to stop. i already paid her what i owe her? what am i supposed to do? please help.

By clarkb — On Apr 05, 2010

One of my bosses has learned I have puppies for sale and is trying to get me to give her one for free or pay will be docked from my checks for an item that months ago was ordered wrong, and my other boss said he was going to eat that cost and in front of all the other employees. Is this legal?

By anon39979 — On Aug 05, 2009

Wondering if the scenario in article 1 is legal.

By skyborn77 — On May 18, 2009

I had to break an apartment lease because of Kidney failure. I lost my job and am in a homeless shelter. They are demanding $4,700 as a termination fee. I obviously cannot pay this. I think it could be classified as extortion, even if all their legal mumbo-jumbo paperwork technically gives them the right to do this. If so it would fall under RICO. Can they actually do this? Thanks

By n0gn0g — On Apr 24, 2009

I have a temporary restraining order from a male co-worker. A civil harassment saying he fears for his life based upon stalking. I had an attorney contact him and the accuser wanted cash money to settle or drop the restraining order against me. Is that legal?

By anon23356 — On Dec 22, 2008

The question here is blackmail or extortion. If a friend told a womans ex that she needed help financially during a hard time and the ex gave the friend money to help her out on the hopes that one day they will get back together. yet the ex said to the friend don't tell her its from me let her think that it came from you. shorty later when the ex didn't hear from the women he got mad and is demanding the friend to get the money back or he's going to threaten extortion onto the women who took the money because he himself is an attorney. Is this really extortion? Can the women get in trouble who took the money?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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