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[Title/H1] – When Does Extortion Become Blackmail? – Looking at Two Connected White-Collar Crimes

Ever watch a mafia or crime movie and hear the terms ‘blackmail’ or ‘extortion?’ You might not be sure what those terms mean, minus context clues from the movie, but they are somewhat linked in a legal sense. In this article, we will examine both and talk about what an extortion accusation could mean for you in a legal sense. Read on to learn more about:

The Legal Definition and Potential Penalties of Extortion;

  • Blackmail vs. Extortion: When Do They Cross Over? and
  • Accused? Your Options from a Legal Standpoint.

Extortion: What is it, and How is it Penalized? 

The legal definition of extortion, as written in the Maryland Criminal Code, is a bit expansive. We’ll touch on each aspect, but generally, the law defines extortion as a person obtaining anything of value from another through the use of force or a type of threat.

‘Force’ may involve bodily harm or property damage. A ‘threat’ may also mention force but could also include exposing a secret or reporting the individual to the authorities over an alleged crime.

Fear also plays a part in defining extortion. The threat component requires the person making the threat intended to cause fear in the victim—if the courts can prove intent, the case for extortion is that much stronger against the defendant. This is not to say that frightening a person when asking for money automatically means extortion occurred. Rather, the alleged extorter must have intended to inspire fear to gain property.

The way courts view anything of value is not limited to just money, physical property, or land. It could also be something that may ‘generate’ property, so to speak, for a person. That is, business-related licenses, payable debts, or business deals may be considered property under the law.

For example: say you own a business. A major distributor offers your rival business a deal to distribute their product—a deal that could put you out of business. At the same time, you have some unfavorable information on the business and could lead to legal action. To stop the deal, you threaten the business owner with releasing the information to the proper authorities.

This example, though abstract, could lead to extortion charges.

For more information about types of extortion and their charges, see the chart below:

The Charge The Penalty



Extortion by any officer or employee of the State government


  • Property value at least $1,000-$10,000: up to 10 years in prison and/or $10,000 in fines.
  • $10,000-$100,000: up to 15 years in prison or $15,000 in fines.
  •  $100,000 and/or more: up to 25 years in prison and/or $25,000 in fines.



Extortion by inducing a person to give up compensation



  • Up to 5 years in prison and/or $5,000 in fines.

Extortion by false accusation



  • Up to 10 years and/or $10,000 in fines.

Extortion by verbal or written threat



  •  Both: Up to 10 years in prison and/or $10,000 in fines.



Coercing or intimidating a person to contribute or donate



  • Misdemeanor crime, up to 90 days in prison and/or a $100 fine.

Making a Threat Against a State or Local Official Through Extortion



  • Up to 3 years in prison and/or $2,500 in fines.

“Sextortion” and Extortion Using Sexually Explicit Material Involving the Extorted



  • Up to 10 years in prison and/or $10,000 in fines.

Are Blackmail and Extortion the Same Thing? 

You may know blackmail from popular television shows or movies when someone makes a threat to reveal embarrassing information in exchange for money, a favor, or as an incentive not to do a certain thing.

The same applies in real life and traces closely to types of extortion. Making a threat sits at the core of blackmail: revealing embarrassing information, financially harmful information, false accusations of crime or threats to turn in a person to the authorities all qualify as acts of blackmail when accompanied with an exchange of property or an action.

How do Blackmail and Extortion differ? 

Extortion, as we covered, has a force element. Blackmail adds an incentive to comply with demands by holding information over the blackmailed person’s head. Its coercive nature pushes a victim to fulfill requests out of fear of leaking their personal information. This may be true and pose a real threat to the victim, but the validity of blackmail is not necessary for it to be a crime. Even if the blackmailer does not have anything on the victim, but they still cooperate, it is still a crime.

You may see emails from unrecognized senders or receive calls from people you do not know claiming they have ‘dirt’ on you and want money for their secrecy. These scams, though seemingly obvious, do end up tricking people into sending money to people who have absolutely nothing on them.

Blackmail is a federal crime punishable by up to one year in prison or up to $100,000 in fines or both.

Can You Argue Your Way Out of Extortion Charges? 

If you find yourself facing extortion charges, contact a criminal defense lawyer immediately. You are not just facing accusations—you are facing a felony crime carrying up to, in most cases, ten years in prison.

Defenses to extortion vary state-to-state, but generally, there are a few options attorneys use depending on the situation.

First, we have mentioned intent many times in relation to the extorter causing the extorted fear. A lack of evidence defense may work in court if your lawyer demonstrates you lacked threatening harm. The capacity to commit extortion, too, carries weight at trial. Likewise, if your claim is outside the realm of believability—that is, your lawyer could argue a reasonable person would not believe the initial threat to be serious—you may see success in the absence of threat defense.

As always, too, your lawyer may look at how law enforcement collected evidence. You can raise a defense of illegal search or seizure to lessen or remove charges.

Having a strong and experienced criminal defense attorney opens up more doors for your future than you would imagine. Especially in the case of extortion, you want a smart, keen, and steadfast lawyer examining every aspect of your case.

Our criminal defense attorneys have combined decades of experience representing people of all backgrounds and circumstances. They are aggressive, adaptable, and able to help you achieve the best outcome for your future. If you find yourself accused of extortion or blackmail, contact our offices for a free initial consultation.