What is Extortion? An Easy to Understand Definition


Cameron Craig
Updated 21 September 2021
What is Extortion? An Easy to Understand Definition

Touchstone Pictures Ransom 1996

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United States Imposter Scam Statistics 2020


1.19 billion total fraud losses
498k reports

$850 av. loss reported lost to imposter scams

Source: 2019-20 Consumer Sentinel Report

Sections on this page
  1. How Extortion Works
  2. Common Extortion Schemes and Examples
  3. How to Report Extortion

If have you have watched an action or drama movie, you will likely know about the principles of extortion and blackmail. Even though each state law differs in relation to the prosecution of these crimes, there is a lot of cross-over. By definition, extortion tends to include the threat of violence rather than just the threat of reputational damage. 

The crime of extortion is broad and includes kidnapping, blackmail, and general bad behavior where someone (person A) forces another (person B) into doing something that (person A) wants. 

Definition
Extortion is where someone obtains a benefit through coercive means

Extortion definition

How Extortion Works

Extortion sounds like a big term, but it only needs the involvement of two people for something to qualify as extortion. In simple terms, here's how extortion works.

Person A is trying to get a benefit, such as:

  • Money (including bitcoin)
  • An action (getting someone to do something against their will)
  • Power
  • Control
  • Access
Person A threatens Person B to get what they want through:
  • The threat of violence or harm
  • The threat of revealing something to harm the victim
  • The threat of exposure of a secret or sensitive information
  • The threat to cause harm as retribution
  • The threat to disgrace Person B
  • The threat of exposure of a photo or video
  • Kidnapping
  • Blackmail
  • Ransomware and control of physical assets like a house or computer

Is Extortion a Crime?

Yes, in the U.S., extortion is a crime both in Federal and State law with penalties of up to 15 years imprisonment. 

Common Extortion Schemes and Examples

There are many different types of extortion, and it is essential to know that it happens in both personal and business life. Many extortion cases involve unhappy employees attempting to extort companies by disclosing damaging information about:
  • The company
  • Other employees
  • Broken laws
  • Company secrets
From a legal perspective, the presence of both a threat and the intent to harm is the critical part of proving extortion exists. Here are some common types of extortion and some well known real-world examples: 

Threat to Expose Secrets 

Extortion includes the threat to expose personal secrets or business secrets. This type of threat might be made by disgruntled employees, partners and lovers, and anyone else with access to sensitive information, including hackers.

In many examples, the extorter might not even have the information they are threatening to release. However, even if this is true, this is still classified as extortion as it involves a threat to force someone to do something against their will. 

Here are some examples:

  • Oprah Winfrey was extorted by someone who recorded her former employees saying bad things about her at a 2005 party. The tapes were 12 hours long, and the extorter contacted Oprah saying these tapes could be extremely damaging to her career unless she paid $1.5 million. The extorter claimed that publishers were already willing to pay more than $1.5 million to leverage the situation further. Oprah involved the FBI, who transferred a deposit for the tapes. They then agreed to meet in a parking lot to exchange the large payment—the extorter was arrested by the authorities. 
  • Electronic Arts is a software company that was hacked and was threatened with extortion or the release of the source code of one of their best-selling games, their upcoming FIFA 21 soccer game. Electronic Arts did not pay, and the hackers followed through with their threat, leaking the game's source code online. 

Electronic Arts FIFA 21
Electronic Arts was was hit by hackers who stole the source code for one of their largest games, offering it for sale for $28 million. Electronic Arts did not pay and the code was leaked.

Threats to Expose Compromising Photos/Videos

There are many examples of modern image/video extortion using compromising photos or videos that.  A single photo or video can ruin a person's career or endorsements and sponsorships. These images can be explicit, compromising, or show something illegal like drug use or abuse. With more cameras available around the world than ever before, and with anonymous payment platforms like Bitcoin, this type of extortion will continue to grow. 

Famous examples:

  • Yoko Ono was extorted for $2 million over a compromising photo stolen by a former employee. With the help of law enforcement, this former employee was arrested and charged. 
  • Cameron Diaz was extorted over a topless photo from a photo session in her early career. When her career took off, the photographer threatened to damage her career with the picture unless he received $3.3 million—he was sentenced to over three years in prison. 
  • Elvis Presley was blackmailed by a "dermatologist" who took a less than flattering photo of Elvis during a skin procedure in the 1950s. The "dermatologist" demanded to be placed on Elvis's payroll, or he would release the photos. He continued to demand employment from Elvis. After multiple demands, Elvis had to involve the FBI.

Cameron Diaz Extortion
Cameron Diaz was extorted over explicit photos. The extorter requested $3.3 million dollars.

Nude Photographs & Revenge Porn (aka Sextortion)

With secret cameras and phone cameras everywhere, including the new and terrifying Facebook glasses, anyone can be filmed with or without their knowledge.

Revenge porn can involve the direct leaking of explicit private images to hurt another person—this is a crime in 48 states. With four out of five adults admitting to sending or receiving an explicit image, the sheer database of available content means that this problem will remain a terrible side effect of modern technology. 

Sextortion is the threat to publicly spread these private images and ask for something in return to prevent the circulation of the photos. For example, the perpetrator asks for things like money, favors, or even for the person to stay in a relationship, constantly threatening to leak the images as revenge porn. The perpetrator could be found guilty of both extortion and revenge porn (if they leak the photos). 

Exposure of Financial, Personal, or Business Information

Hackers, identity thieves, or colleagues might have sensitive personal information about someone that could be damaging to their finances or reputation. 

For celebrities, this might even be as simple as:

  • Computers
  • Hard drives
  • Addresses
  • Addresses of frequently visited locations
  • Addresses of their kid's schools
  • Upcoming itineraries or schedules

This type of extortion is common in corporate cases where evidence of "cooking the books" or other misdeeds might be used as leverage by a disgruntled employee who asks for a payoff. It may also occur as part of a hack where the hacker threatens to expose contracts, rates, and other sensitive customer information. 

Example:

  • Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise had personal information and 7,000 photos from their wedding stolen by a computer technician who also stole sensitive information from other celebrities. The extorter, David Hans Schmidt, wanted $1.3 million for the contents. He was arrested and faced two years in federal prison but committed suicide before his hearing. 

Threats Against You or Your Family

Unfortunately, some people use a family member as leverage to get what they want.  A problem with proving this extortion is that it is not illegal to simply make a threat—the extorter must demonstrate that they intended to actually perform the act. 

Examples:

  • Regis Philbin's own son threatened to kill Regis multiple times unless he supplied money for drugs. He faced court for extortion of Regis Philbin in 2009.
  • Cindy Crawford was the victim of an extortion plot where a German male model got his hands on photos of her daughter—he asked for $100,000 or threatened to leak the images to the press. The male model was found guilty of extortion and was sentenced to two years in prison. 

Threats to Expose Extra Marital Affairs 

A common extortion scheme is where someone has evidence of an extramarital affair that could completely change the person's life if the evidence came to light. 

Examples:

  • David Boreanaz was extorted by a woman asking for "hush money" in 2010. He instead decided to go public with an extramarital affair rather than paying the money.
  • Kevin Hart claimed he was extorted in 2017 over information about a relationship. However, he later revealed that he made up the claim as a way to cover his cheating. 

Celebrities extorted in affairs
Both David Boreanaz (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bones) and Kevin Hart were both victims of extortion attempts relating to affairs.

Threat of an Accusation

An example of extortion can occur if someone threatens to accuse another of a crime like rape or assault if they don't do what the person is asking. For example, this threat might come from a lover or employee/employer saying they will accuse the other person of rape if they leave/fire them. 

How to Report Extortion

Extortion is a crime, so your first stop should be with the local authorities to file a police report if you suspect extortion.

Many extortion scams will take a while to unravel, and it is essential to involve the authorities early. If you have an attorney, you may want to talk to them. You should:

  • Collect and screenshot/save all communication and requests.
  • Document as much other evidence that you can collect.
  • Create a timeline so that you can clearly communicate with authorities.
  • Consult an attorney to understand what your civil options might be.
  • Use the authorities—do not try to trap the perpetrator yourself.
  • Use friends and family as support and talk through all scenarios rather than taking all of the emotional load yourself.

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