Blackmail and Extortion are serious crimes that carries a penalty of up to 14 years’ imprisonment.
WHAT IS EXTORTION?
Extortion is sometimes confused with blackmail. Although there are a lot of similarities between the two crimes, and the sentencing guidelines are the same for both offences, extortion and blackmail describe two different acts.
The offence of blackmail is committed when a person makes an unwarranted demand with menaces with a view to gain for themselves or another or intending to cause loss to another.
Most commonly, blackmail involves a request for money coupled by a threat to do something against the victim’s interests if they don’t pay (for example, a threat to expose harmful information about the victim – whether this be true or false information). However, this is one of many ways that the offence of blackmail can be committed.
Looking at the elements of the offence:
- A “demand” can be a request for something or an offer of something (for example protection). The demand does not need to be communicated in words; it can be conveyed by an individual’s demeanour provided that the effect is to subject the victim to menacing pressure. Spoken or written demands do not need to be received by the victim; they will be considered “made” for the purposes of establishing this element of the offence as soon as they are addressed to the victim, whether received or not.
- The term “menaces” is not defined in the relevant legislation but should be understood as having its ordinary meaning in the English language. A serious or significant threat will often qualify as a menace, even if the threat itself does not affect the victim. Here the question is an objective one: whether an ordinary person of normal stability and courage would be moved by or made apprehensive by the threat so as to accede unwillingly to the demand. Even where an ordinary person would not be moved by a particular threat, if the victim is exceptionally timid or susceptible to that threatened action, and the person issuing the threat knows this and/or intends to capitalise on that susceptibility, they will be considered to be acting with menaces.
- A demand is “unwarranted” unless the person making it believes both (i) that they have reasonable grounds for making the demand; and (ii) that menaces are a proper means of enforcing the demand. This means that even if the individual believes they have a legal right to make a particular request, if they re-enforce that request with menaces that they know to be improper, they can still be guilty of blackmail. In a similar vein, the fact that the action threatened may be legal or even morally desirable (for example, revealing the victim’s criminality) does not prevent a demand from being unwarranted; the use of a serious or significant threat to re-enforce a demand will usually make the demand unwarranted. This test is subjective: what the defendant in fact believed, reasonably or not.
- The gain sought or loss intended must concern the gain or loss of money or property. The gain or loss intended does not need to be permanent and can include gain by keeping something that an individual already has and loss by depriving the victim of something they might otherwise get.
Extortion differs from blackmail in the nature of the threat. Extortion describes the act of threatening a victim’s person or property with violence, physical harm or destruction to coerce them into complying with demands. Unlike with blackmail (where the threatened action itself may be legal and morally desirable – for example, the exposure of the victim’s criminality), the threatened actions that constitute extortion when used to re-enforce an unwarranted demand would be offences in and of themselves (offences against the person or criminal damage).
WHAT IS “SEXTORTION”?
There is widespread media coverage of wealthy and famous individuals being affected by sextortion or revenge porn. Although it sounds similar to extortion, ‘sextortion’ is actually a form of cyber-enabled blackmail. This is because ‘sextortion’ entails threats not of physical harm or the destruction to property, but instead that an individual will release photographs or videos of the victim that are sexual in nature unless their demands are met. If revealed this material often has the potential to adversely affect the victim, for example by:
- Causing great embarrassment for the victim
- Impacting their family relationships.
- Causing reputational damage.
- Affecting their employment or business interests.
In the past, this crime often followed the acrimonious breakdown of a romantic relationship, but increasingly, victims are being lured into performing sexual acts in front of webcams or encouraged to send intimate images of themselves on dating apps, social media or adult sites, which are then downloaded or saved by the perpetrator and form the basis of the threat. Even where the images or videos have been obtained with consent, a threat to share that material unless the victim does something crosses the threshold of criminal behavior.
Why is Blackmail a Crime?
Blackmail is considered a violation of the rights of the individual. The use of threats or leverage to make a demand is intended to deprive the victim of their free will and compel them to act against their own best interests.
While in many cases it may be legal for the perpetrator of a blackmail to publicize the information they are threatening to release, it becomes unlawful coercion when demands are made of the victim. This is the case irrespective of whether the information under threat of release is factually true.
What Actions Constitute Blackmail?
Blackmail always involves threatening to expose something harmful with the goal of getting something in return. If someone threatens to expose something negative or humiliating about you in exchange for money or another form of favor – they are blackmailing you.
Here are a few common examples of blackmail:
Hobbs Act blackmail,
Steps You Can Take to Protect Yourself from Blackmail
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! If you are concerned about the growing problem of internet blackmail and extortion, there are steps you can take to protect yourself.
Here are some tips everyone can use to protect themselves from blackmail:
Avoid Random Friend Requests on Social Media
Be skeptical of friend requests and direct messages from people you do not know.
Many strangers are actually catfishing or pretending to be someone they are not to get something out of you.
Maximize Your Social Media Security Settings
Social media websites allow you to adjust your profile’s security. On Facebook, for instance, you can adjust your profile so that only friends of friends can see your profile, or it can even be more restrictive.
We recommend setting all social media accounts at the highest level of privacy and using strong passwords for each site.
Look out for Red Flags That Someone is Not Who They Claim to Be Red flags that indicate you might be dealing with a fake persona include:
A reluctance to show their face,
Few friends or interactions on their profile,
Outlandish stories (often too good to be true),
Requests for money, and a
Rush into highly sexualized language and overtures.
Do Not Disclose Personal Information Too Quickly
Blackmailers try to get personal “dirt” on their victims as quickly as possible. This is the main part of their whole scheme!
Protect your privacy by adjusting settings on your social media profiles and be careful not to reveal personal information to those you do not know very well.
Block Your Webcam
Webcam hacking is a real (and scary) thing. One of the simplest ways to protect yourself against this invasion of privacy is to place a sticker over your webcam on your computer. This way, even a sophisticated hacker will not be able to spy on your activities.
Do Not Share Explicit Content
Assume that any sexually explicit video, images, or “sexts” you send to someone can and will be used against you. Sadly, even romantic partners who you trust enough to share intimate images with might later use the content to hurt you.
In today’s digital age, the dangers of sexting carry severe consequences, so the best way to prevent explicit content from getting shared without your consent is to refrain from sharing this content in the first place.
How Seriously Should You Take Blackmail & Cyber Extortion?
We mentioned above that many blackmailers do not follow through (because they lose their leverage in doing so). But this does not mean you should ignore an extortionist’s threats.
You should always take blackmail very seriously because it is a crime. And chances are, if the perpetrator is willing to break the law to blackmail you, they will repeat their behavior with you and others.
Beyond that, the damage caused by blackmailers is very real. Leaked content can damage your reputation, career, and personal life. It can also lead to bodily injury in some of the most severe cases.