One of the most common white collar crimes in the United States is extortion. However, many people confuse extortion with its cousin, blackmail.
Understanding the difference between these two concepts will help you understand the nature of the crimes the court is leveling against you. According to the New York Times, the best way to conceptualize the difference between these crimes is to think about blackmail as a subset of extortion.
What is extortion?
Extortion is when one person makes a threat to another person. This threat is usually either physical or destructive in nature. The purpose behind extortion is to force somebody into taking an action that they would rather not. A traditional example is the old mafioso “you pay me money or I will break your kneecaps.”
Another common form of extortion is gangs forcing store owners in certain neighborhoods to pay them “protection money.” Kidnapping, if the perpetrators are asking for ransom, is also a form of extortion. Basically, any time one person scares another person into giving up something of value under threat of harm is extortion.
What is blackmail?
Again, blackmail is very similar to extortion, but usually it does not involve anything violent. Rather, blackmail involves one person threatening to release information that is either embarrassing or damaging about another person.
A modern example of blackmail would be a jilted ex-lover threatening to release compromising pictures of the other on the internet unless the victim meets his or her demands. In many cases, the thought of somebody flooding the internet with compromising pictures is enough to get the victim to comply with the demands of the blackmailer.
Essentially, both of these are forms of high-level bullying.