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What is Extortion - How does the US law deal with it

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29 Oct, 2023

Recently, there has been a huge increase in the number of businesses and individuals victims of extortion. It's a crime that is often difficult to detect and prosecute because it can take place over the phone or through email messages.

If you've ever been asked to pay money for protection, you've probably wondered what the word "extortion" really means. It's a tricky word with many definitions and a crime that is often difficult to prosecute.

It can be difficult to identify extortion because the definition is broad. In this article, we'll go over the definition of extortion, a couple of well-known types of extortion, what's considered criminal behavior, and what would happen if someone were caught committing extortion in the USA.

What is Extortion - How does the US law deal with it

What Is Extortion?

The crime of extortion has traditionally been only a concern for actions performed by public or government officials. However, this crime is now applicable to private citizens' actions. (In certain states, extortion results from public officials' actions, and blackmail applies to private individuals' actions despite the actions being similar.) 
Let's examine the various elements of extortion.

Defining Extortion

A person commits extortion by:

  • trying to make either property, money, or another valuable item
  • by the threat to another person by threatening them with reputational or personal harm
  • that have a criminal or fraudulent motive.

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Attempting to Gain Property, Money, or Something of Value

The kind of property the criminal aims to acquire by extortion covers almost everything worth. However, the property does not require to be physical or possess any value in dollars. It's not even required that the defendant remove the victim from the property since trying to seize property is also an offense.

Courts have determined that the property used in extortion may include assets such as cash, tangible assets, alcohol licenses, debts, and even agreements to not compete in businesses.

In general, sexual activities are protected. However, certain states have specific laws that regulate sexual extortion. For instance, Arizona.

Communicating a Threat

Extortion is when an actor has to create a threat that demonstrates the intention of committing harm or causing harm to the victim. The threat should be able to create anxiety in the victim. The fear could be based on anything, including the fear of harm, loss of income, public stigmatization, expulsion, or anything else that may make the victim decide to take action or give up the property. 

For instance, under California's law, an individual may commit extortion by threatening to harm the victim or another, making the accuser guilty of committing an offense or embarrassing behavior, divulging the truth, or even informing an individual of the immigration authorities.

A criminal may use the threat either verbally, in writing, or through non-verbal gestures or communication methods. In some states, simply making threats is sufficient to be considered an offense, regardless of whether or not the victim was scared.

Read More: What is Extortion - How does the US law deal with it

Unlawful Conduct Done With a Corrupt Intent

An extortionist is someone making threats to make another person give money, property, or any other valuable item. Anyone who committed a mistake in fact or made a mistake is not committing a crime with a corrupt motive.

The intent is not solely based on the defendant's statements. The facts and circumstances surrounding the threat can also aid in proving the perpetrator's intentions. 

Also, an attorney can show that the accused was intending to take away the victim's property without having to demonstrate what was happening inside the defendant's head.

Types of Extortion

Each state and the federal government have laws that make extortion a crime. Certain states break it down further and provide a list of different forms of extortion.
Blackmail is a Type of Extortion

In most cases, extortion and blackmail are frequently used in conjunction. Blackmail is the term used to describe when an individual takes money from the victim through threats of accusation or public exposure. 

When we consider blackmail, we typically imagine hush money or an offer to silence someone. Extortion is usually more of a spectrum of conduct than blackmail.
Threats as a Type of Extortion

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As we've discussed previously, extortion is a crime that requires the perpetrator to put forth a threat to the victim. In contrast to blackmail, in which the person extorting money uses threats, some threats involve the offender performing something harmful to the victim.

For instance, the illegal person may threaten to hurt the victim or a third party charge the person with committing a criminal act or scandalous behavior, divulge the truth, or even inform an individual about immigration.

1. Cyber Extortion

The concept of cyber extortion has been in the news since the first computers were introduced in the early 1990s, but it's more frequent than ever because computers are becoming more integral to our daily lives. 

A typical example of exorbitant cyber behavior is threatening to divulge all private information of a company if it doesn't meet its financial demands. Anyone can be a victim of cyber extortion, too.

2. Federal Law on Extortion

The Hobbs Act is the federal statute that deals with the extortion of money. It prevents robbery or extortion of a public official. An illegal act is if a government official utilizes their office to obtain cash from someone else illegally. It is often thought of as a person who is offering a bribe.

3. What Are the Penalties for Extortion?

Prosecutors can charge extortion as a felony or misdemeanor based on the circumstances that led to the incident and the background criminal offense or a misdemeanor based on the accused's history.

4. State Penalties for Extortion

Extortion penalties vary from state to state. The extent of punishment is determined by the prosecutor's decision to charge the accused with a felony or a misdemeanor. For West Virginia, for example, exporting is a crime that's a felony that is punishable by one to five years of jail. 

But suppose the person who committed the crime could not acquire any valuable item. In that case, the offender is charged with the misfortune of being charged with a misdemeanor that can result in two to twelve months in prison and an amount of between $50 and $500.

In Arizona, an individual who commits extortion through threats to cause physical harm or death is subject to a Class 2 felony conviction, which can lead to 12.5 years in jail for those who are first offenders. 

Other kinds of threats could cause the issuance of a Class 4 felony conviction, which could result in as long as 15 years in prison, based on the defendant's prior convictions.

5. Federal Penalties for Extortion

Infractions of violating the Hobbs Act can result in up to 20 years in federal prison as well as significant fines. Other extortion violations governed by federal law can result in less severe penalties, including three years of prison.

Possible Defenses to an Extortion Charge

The defendants facing extortion charges under federal or state law may have a variety of defenses that they can use.
True innocence

Defendants charged with extortion or similar crimes can avail the typical defenses to criminal defendants of all kinds like "Someone else committed this crime" or "The alleged conduct did not occur."

Absence of intent

Extortion requires that the defendant explicitly intended to compel another to give money, property, or anything of value by threat. In the absence of that intent, the crime would not exist.

The absence of a threat

To constitute extortion, the perpetrator must have threatened to commit a hurtful or destructive act against the victim. If the defendant can demonstrate that there was no threat in the first place, this part of the offense has not been met.

The victim wasn't scared

This defense only applies to states where the victim feels anxiety based on the threat made by the defendant. It may not be as beneficial when the prosecutor needs only to prove that the threats make a reasonable person feel fear.

In the last word

Extortion is a crime that involves the use of threats of harm or fear to obtain money or property. The definition of extortion varies by state, but generally speaking, it involves the threat of physical violence or harm to a person or property in order to obtain something of value from them. Extortion is considered a crime of violence because the intent of the perpetrator is to cause fear or harm to the victim.

Extortion is the act of threatening to inflict harm or injury to another person if that person does not comply with an unlawful demand. It is a crime under both federal and state law. In the United States, extortion is defined as an illegal attempt to obtain something of value from another person by the use of force, fear, or threats.

FAQS about extortion

What is extortion?

Extortion is when someone threatens to harm you or your family if you don't do something. It is illegal in the United States.

How much does it cost to defend against extortion charges?

The cost of defending against extortion charges depends on the circumstances.

How do I report an extortion attempt?

If you think you are being extorted, contact your local law enforcement agency.

What is the punishment for extortion?

The punishment for extortion is usually a fine or a prison sentence.

How do I get out of an extortion situation?

If you are being extorted, you may want to talk to a lawyer or a friend.

What happens if I don't pay and the person demands money again?

If you don't pay the second time, you will be charged with a crime.

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