According to criminal law, blackmail involves the act of making threats to an individual that, unless they do as the blackmailer demands, they will reveal private or embarrassing information about them. This information is typically of a very personal nature and may cause harm or humiliation to the individual, their family, or their loved ones.
Blackmail could be considered a subcategory of extortion. Examples of blackmail include:
- Using force, threats, intimidation to compel another to give the blackmailer money or property;
- Using force, threats, or intimidation to compel a public official to perform an official duty; and
- Threatening to expose a victim’s secret involving:
- crime; or
- public disgrace.
Celebrities and public officials are often targets for extortion. For example, these individuals may be forced to provide money or property in order to save their reputations.
How is Blackmail Different from Extortion?
As noted above, blackmail is typically considered to be a form of extortion. It is important to note, however, that the crimes may be quite different.
With extortion, an individual makes threats in order to obtain money or property or to force an individual to engage in some action. With blackmail, on the other hand, the only threat is the revelation of personal information if the blackmailer’s demands are not met.
Because, in most cases, the information the blackmailer has is actually true, revealing that information is not criminal. Demanding money or action by the victim to withhold that information, however, is a criminal act.
The crime of blackmail involves threatening to reveal information that is:
- Disgraceful; or
Unless the blackmailer’s demands are met, the information may be revealed to:
- The public;
- The individual’s family;
- Their spouse; or
- Their associates.
State laws governing blackmail may vary. There are also federal blackmail laws.
Under the federal blackmail statute, the government is required to prove:
- The blackmailer demanded money or something of value from the victim;
- Under a threat of informing or consideration for not informing regarding a violation of any law of the United States; and
- The blackmailer had knowledge that related to illegal activity and offered to withhold the information.
What are the Consequences of Blackmail?
There can be numerous legal consequences of blackmail. Similar to extortion, blackmail is a felony.
The penalties for a blackmail conviction may include:
- A prison sentence of a year or more;
- Heavy criminal fines; and
Felonies are typically classified based upon the seriousness of the offense. Every state has its own statutes which provide guidelines regarding how to categorize a felony offense in the state.
For example, in some states, murder may be classified as a Class A or a Class 1 felony. These two levels are typically reserved for the most serious offenses and are crimes which can result in the maximum punishment.
The classifications of other offenses continue in an orderly fashion, such as Class B or Class 2, Class C or Class 3, and so on. The severity of the offenses and punishments will decrease with each classification.
It is important to be aware that there are also other consequences of felony convictions. In general, a felony conviction remains on an individual’s criminal record for the rest of their lives.
Having a felony conviction on an individual’s record will affect their life in many ways, including:
- Making it difficult to find employment;
- Making it difficult to gain custody rights over their children;
- Taking away the right to vote in elections; and
- Taking away the right to own firearms.
In addition, if an individual who has a felony conviction, or a felon, is convicted of another crime in the future, their punishment may be increased based upon the number of felony convictions. This may result in a longer prison, sentence, higher fines, or other consequences.
What Should I Do if Someone is Blackmailing Me?
If an individual is being threatened by another individual to reveal private or personal information about them, their family, or their loved ones, they should take certain steps immediately. It is extremely important to inform the local authorities.
Due to new types of technology and the fact that most people have cameras on all of the devices they use on a daily basis, there is a greater chance of blackmail using technology. There are several steps an individual can consider taking, including:
- Inform local law enforcement that they are being blackmailed;
- Remember that giving in to the blackmailer’s demands will not likely stop their demands;
- Do not confront the blackmailer, online or in person;
- End all contact with the blackmailer immediately;
- Place filters on an email account to block the blackmailer’s email address;
- Block the blackmailer’s number on the individual’s cell phone;
- Change the privacy settings on all social media accounts to share less information;
- Change any passwords, such as email and other accounts, that may have been compromised;
- Consider creating new accounts, email and otherwise, and advise recipients that those accounts were compromised and they should not open communication from them;
- Put password protections on all devices;
- Cover webcams when not in use; and
- An individual can do an internet search for their name and set up alerts for any new online information.
It is very important to preserve all communications from the blackmailer as evidence of the crime. Although it may feel like some of the evidence is embarrassing, it may help an individual’s case.
If an individual deletes valuable evidence, it may be difficult or impossible for a lawyer to help them. It may also be helpful, if a victim is comfortable doing so, to supply a copy of any evidence obtained to another trusted individual, so it can be proven that the evidence was not tampered with.
It is also important to be aware that the crime of blackmail occurs when the threat to release the information is made, even if no money or property ever changes hands. If an individual is being blackmailed, the blackmailer is breaking the law whether or not the victim complies with their demands.
What are Possible Defenses to Extortion or Blackmail?
There are some possible defenses which may be used against a charge of extortion or blackmail. If an individual is accused of blackmail, extortion, or any other type of crime, they should contact a criminal lawyer immediately.
A criminal lawyer will be able to determine what defenses may be available to a defendant as well as represent them in court. Some possible defenses to extortion may include:
- The defendant was falsely accused;
- The defendant never made any types of threats and did not coerce the victim into providing money or property; and
- No evidence exists to support the charge.
What Should I Do if I Am Accused of Extortion or Blackmail?
It is essential to have the assistance of a criminal lawyer for any blackmail cases or extortion cases you may be involved in. If you are accused of extortion, blackmail, or any type of crime, it is important to conduct a criminal lawyer as soon as possible. Your attorney will be able to advise you regarding the laws in your state, what defenses are available to you, and represent you during any court appearances.