What does it mean to extort?

extortThe purpose of the article is to provide individuals accused of extortion with basic practical information including, charges, penalties and possible defenses. It has also been designed to give an overview for readers who are interested in the subject. It is not intended as a substitute for qualified legal counsel. It does not constitute legal advice. So what does it mean to extort?


Extortion is defined as the act of obtaining money or property from someone by threatening either the victim or a related party of the victim with; injury or bodily harm, accusing them of a crime, threatening to defame or damage their reputation or threatening to expose a secret. Extortion requires that the individual sent the message “willingly” and “knowingly” as elements of the intent to commit the crime. The extortionist also has to actually put the victim in fear that they will indeed carry out his or her threat for it to be a crime. Money or property does not have to actually be exchanged. The simple threat of violence or a legal action which seeks payment of money or property in order to stop action is enough for a person to be charged with the crime.  It is interesting to note that the message only has to be sent to the victim, even if they do not receive it, to commit extortion.

Extortion by a public official is a similar charge with the exception being that the extorter commits the crime while in a position of authority. According to jrank.org, there are four basic ways in which a public officer commits extortion. The officer might demand a fee not allowed by law and accept it under the guise of performing an official duty. They might take a fee higher than that allowed by law. In this case the victim must at least believe that he or she is under an obligation to pay some amount. A third method is for the officer to receive a fee before it is due. The crime is committed regardless of whether the sum taken is likely to become due in the future. It is not criminal, however, for an officer to collect a fee before it is due if the person paying so requests. Finally, extortion may be committed by the officer’s taking a fee for services that are not performed. The service refrained from must be one within the official capacity of the officer in order to constitute extortion.  In the U.S. extortion may also be charged as a federal crime if the perpetrator uses a phone, mail, computer or internet to engage in the act.

Extortionists are typically caught when the victim notifies law enforcement. When the crime is committed by electronic means, government agencies track the offender though internet services providers, the postal service or the telephone company. Occasionally they will pose as the victim to try and lure the extortionist into a meeting or other type of transaction.

Most extortion charges are felonies and the penalties vary from state to state. Punishments are dependent upon a number of factors including the amount of money involved and the nature of the threat.  The penalties range from one year in prison and a fine or both on the lower end of the spectrum for first time offenders. Harsher penalties for more severe threats and higher dollar amounts and can be as long as seven years in prison.  Federal penalties range from one year in prison and a fine up to five years and a ten thousand dollar fine. If the extortion is committed by a public official federal sentences are invoked as well as forfeiture of the office that the offender holds.

Defending a charge of extortion is not impossible.  An affirmative defense, which switches the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defense, is one possible scenario. If a person who acts under an honest belief that he or she has a right to the money or property taken then there was no crime actually committed. Say for example that a convenience store owner thinks that a customer stole something and demands that the customer pay for the items or else call the police and have the customer arrested for shoplifting. The store owner genuinely believes that the money is owed and therefore no crime has been committed. What it means to extort is argued on a daily basis in US courtrooms.

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