Blackmail involves a threat to do something that would cause a person to suffer embarrassment or financial loss, unless that person meets certain demands. The threat might include:
to reveal private about a person that is likely to cause them embarrassment;
to reveal sensitive information that is likely to cause financial harm;
to accuse a person falsely of a crime; or
to report a person’s involvement in a crime.
In order to avoid the threatened action, a blackmail victim must pay money to the blackmailer or perform some other action. The action demanded by the blackmailer may or may not be illegal itself. The growth of the Internet has also led to overlap between blackmail and cybercrime.
Many forms of blackmail are considered crimes under state or federal law. Most states treat blackmail as a type of extortion or coercion, which involves threats of violence or other harm in order to compel a person to do something. Blackmail is generally classified as a felony, which could result in multi-year prison sentences and large fines.
Extortion vs. Blackmail
Blackmail and extortion are related concepts in criminal law. Extortion is generally considered a form of theft, which involves the threat of physical harm or destruction of property in order to obtain something of value or compel a person to do something. In cases involving government officials, extortion could also involve misuse or abuse of authority, such as threatening to arrest a person without cause as a means of coercing them.
Where extortion is primarily a crime based on force, blackmail is a crime based on information. A blackmailer typically has information that is damaging to the victim, and uses threats to reveal that information in order to coerce the victim. Blackmail is considered a crime regardless of whether the information is true or false. The central element of the crime is the blackmailer’s intent to obtain money, property, or services from the victim with threats of revealing the information.
State Blackmail Law
Laws regarding blackmail vary widely from one state to another, but they all have similar definitions of the offense. Some states treat blackmail as a distinct criminal offense, while others treat it as a form of extortion or coercion.
In Kansas, for example, blackmail is a crime against the person, rather than a theft offense. State law defines the offense as a threat to reveal embarrassing or damaging information about a person in order to obtain something of value or coerce someone to act against his or her will. The information could be about the victim or about another person.
In contrast, California includes blackmail in the provisions relating to extortion. The elements commonly associated with blackmail form part of the offense of extortion, including threats to accuse a person of a crime, expose a person to disgrace or embarrassment, or expose a secret about a person.
The crime of coercion in New York is similar to California’s extortion statute, and it includes the common elements of blackmail. It is an offense to use threats of criminal charges, accusation of a crime, exposure of a secret that could lead to public ridicule or contempt, testimony against a person, or refusal to testify for a person; if the purpose of the threat is to coerce a person into paying money, providing something else of value, or engaging in conduct from which they have a legal right to abstain.
Federal Blackmail Law
A threat to report, or testify against, a person for any violation of federal law, along with a demand for money or something else of value, is considered a federal crime. A conviction could result in up to one year in prison, a fine of up to $100,000, or a combination of the two.
New forms of blackmail have appeared as the Internet has grown, and the law has not always adapted to new technologies. “Webcam blackmail,” as it is informally known, might involve someone who obtains intimate photographs or videos of a person, sometimes by request after developing a relationship with the person online, and sometimes through theft. The person then threatens to publish the pictures or videos on the Internet if the person does not pay money, provide additional photographs or videos, or provide something else of value.