Dealing with internet blackmail can be stressful, embarrassing, and scary. If you are wondering how to deal with blackmail you have multiple legal options on your side. Blackmail is against the law – no matter where you live. While you may be hesitant to reach out for help, it is important to contact the authorities and seek the advice of a legal professional.
Here are actionable steps you should take if you are dealing with blackmail:
- Resist the urge to engage with the blackmailer;
- Do not try to negotiate or pay the ransom;
- Preserve all communications and evidence;
- Enlist support from a trusted person to document the evidence;
- Adjust your online privacy settings;
- Set up online alerts;
- Report the crime to law enforcement;
- Talk to an experienced internet attorney.
At Minc Law, we help victims of blackmail, extortion, and revenge porn prevent and respond to online threats. From investigating anonymous perpetrators to removing unwanted and negative online content, we are here to help.
In this comprehensive guide to online extortion, we will answer the most common questions about blackmail. We will provide a state-by-state breakdown of relevant blackmail statutes and provide actionable tips for preventing and dealing with blackmail.
What is the Definition of Blackmail?
Most people understand blackmail as someone threatening to do or reveal something negative unless you give them money. While that definition is fairly accurate, the legal definition of blackmail is slightly more complex.
What is the Legal Definition of Blackmail?
As a criminal offense, blackmail is the crime of threatening to reveal damaging information about a person unless payment or some other benefit is received. In some cases, the perpetrator seeks favors other than money, such as sexual favors or other benefits to gain power over their victim.
Blackmail occurs when someone threatens to reveal humiliating or harmful information unless they are compensated in some way. It is important to note that the crime occurs when the threat is made – no money or property has to change hands. If someone blackmails you, they are breaking the law whether or not you comply with their demands.
While state laws vary, 18 U.S.C. § 873 makes blackmail a federal offense punishable by fine or up to one year of imprisonment. The federal statute defines the crime of blackmail as: “Whoever, under a threat of informing, or as a consideration for not informing, against any violation of any law of the United States, demands or receives any money or other valuable thing, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”
If you think the wording of the federal statute is a little dense and unclear, you are not alone. In the next section, I will break down each element into simpler terms.
Is Blackmail a Crime? Elements That Need to Be Established to Prove Blackmail
Blackmail is a crime, although states refer to the crime under differing names.
New York’s Larceny By Extortion Statute
For example, New York refers to blackmail as larceny (theft) by Extortion. New York’s Larceny by Extortion statute makes it a crime to “compel or induce another person to deliver property” to the extortionist or a third party, by instilling fear in the victim that they will:
- Cause physical injury,
- Cause property damage,
- Engage in criminal conduct,
- Accuse a person of a crime,
- Expose a secret or publicize a fact that exposes a person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule,
- Cause a strike, boycott, or other action that harms a person’s business,
- Testify or withhold testimony with respect to another’s legal claim,
- Use or abuse his position as a public servant, or
- Perform any other act that is calculated to harm another person with respect to his health, safety, business, calling, career, financial condition, reputation, or personal relationships.
As you can see, the New York statute goes to great lengths to outline the various threats commonly made by blackmailers.
Ohio’s Definition of Blackmail
In Ohio, blackmail is criminalized as extortion under Section 2905.11 of the Ohio Revised Code. The Ohio statute is a little simpler than New York’s, stating that “no person, with the purpose to obtain any valuable thing…benefit…or to induce another to do an unlawful act, shall:
- Threaten to commit any felony,
- Threaten to commit any offense of violence,
- Violate section 2903.21 (aggravated menacing – threatening to cause harm to the victim or their loved ones) or 2903.22 (menacing) of the Revised Code,
- Utter or threaten any calumny against any person, or
- Expose or threaten to expose any matter tending to subject any person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or to damage any person’s personal or business repute, or to impair any person’s credit.
Wyoming’s Blackmail & Aggravated Blackmail Statute
Wyoming recognizes the crimes of blackmail, but also recognizes aggravated blackmail as a greater offense, punishable by a minimum of 5 years in prison, although the maximum sentence can be as much as 25 years in prison. In Wyoming, aggravated blackmail occurs if a perpetrator causes bodily injury to another person in the course of committing blackmail. Wyoming’s underlying blackmail statute is relatively short and simple:
“A person commits blackmail if, with the intent to obtain property of another or to compel action or inaction by any person against his will if the person: (1) Threatens bodily injury or property damage; or (2) Accuses or threatens to accuse a person of a crime or immoral conduct which would disgrace the person.”
Federal Law Definition of Blackmail Under the Hobbs Act
On the federal level, the Hobbs Act regulates extortion and robbery. To trigger the Hobbs Act, the extortion must affect interstate or foreign commerce. This might include threats issued by email or another form of communication across state lines. To prove a violation of the Hobbs Act:
- The defendant must have induced or attempted to induce the victim to give up property,
- The defendant must use or attempt to use the victim’s reasonable fear of physical injury or economic harm to convince them to give up property,
- The defendant’s conduct must actually or potentially obstruct, delay, or affect interstate or foreign commerce. This can involve using stolen money to purchase products in other states, interrupting the interstate movement of goods, or hurting an interstate business.
- The defendant’s actual or threatened use of force, violence, or fear was wrongful (meaning the defendant had no lawful claim to the property they are attempting to obtain through extortion).
For more information on each states’ blackmail and extortion statutes, here is a list of relevant statutes.
What is the Difference Between Extortion & Blackmail?
More often than not, the terms, “blackmail” and “extortion” are used interchangeably. In some states, blackmail is a subcategory of extortion. Extortion comes from the Latin word, “extortionem” which means “twisting out.”
In most states, extortion is the crime of coercing someone to pay or perform a specific act through threats of physical harm or injury. An extortioner might also threaten to accuse or reveal information about the victim that is morally reprehensible or would hurt the victim’s reputation. As a subcategory of extortion, blackmail occurs when the threat involves revealing damaging private information.
Both extortion and blackmail involve threatening a victim to get something of value. Often, both crimes are classified as theft (also referred to as “larceny”). Some states have combined all of the terms under a single, consolidated crime of theft. As you can see by the list of relevant state statutes above, the crime of blackmail goes by a variety of different names – but it is almost always considered a form of theft.
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,
- Revenge porn,
- Celebrity blackmail.
Hobbs Act Blackmail
A prominent case that involved the federal Hobbs Act was Sekhar v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2720 (2013). The defendant, Giridhar Sekhar, was a managing partner at FA Technology. The New York Comptroller, who was responsible for New York’s state and local government pension fund, was considering investing in FA Technology. If the Comptroller invested in the company, FA Technology stood to gain around $7.6 million in fees.
While researching the fund, the Comptroller’s General Counsel was advised by the New York Attorney General that an FA Technology agent was under investigation, so it was not wise to invest in the company. As a result, the Comptroller decided not to invest in the fund.
A few days later, the Comptroller’s General Counsel received an email threatening to reveal his extramarital affair if he did not reverse his decision and invest in FA Technology. After several more threatening emails, the FBI was able to trace the source of the emails to FA Technology’s managing partner, Sekhar. Sekhar was charged with extortion under the Hobbs Act and six counts of interstate transmission of extortionate threats.
Revenge Porn Blackmail
Revenge porn is a form of blackmail where a perpetrator threatens to publish sexually explicit content (often on revenge porn websites) unless you provide them with money or other favors. The perpetrators may be former romantic partners who were provided the explicit materials with your consent at a time when you were dating.
According to a 2013 survey by the Cyber Rights Initiative, 90% of the victims of revenge porn are women and 57% of those women were threatened by an ex-boyfriend. Sometimes, explicit materials are obtained through hacking and victims have a more difficult time determining the true identity of their perpetrator.
Occasionally, perpetrators are strangers who lure their victims into providing explicit content online. This type of revenge porn is also referred to as sextortion.
Sextortion (Sexual Blackmail)
Sextortion is the most common form of blackmail we see in our practice. It is also referred to as webcam blackmail, internet blackmail, cyber harassment, and online extortion. Many states have enacted revenge porn and sextortion-specific statutes, recognizing that this type of crime is occurring more and more often.
While sextortion statutes differ, it is typically defined as a perpetrator threatening to publish explicit content (texts, pictures, videos) unless you comply with their demands. Sadly, there are some sophisticated sextortionists and sextortion rings that defraud multiple victims.
Perpetrators might create a fake persona (catfishing) and persuade their victim to share nude photos or perform sexual acts on a webcam. Once they obtain the explicit material, they start threatening to expose the content unless they are paid, or more sexual acts are performed. They may even start sending explicit content to friends and family over social media to heighten the victim’s fear.
Perpetrators often target individuals who they perceive as having the ability to pay as well as those who have a reputation to uphold. In 2019 alone, there were 43,101 known victims of extortion who lost a combined $107.5 million to sextortionists.
Because perpetrators often target those with a reputation to uphold and an ability to pay, celebrities are frequent victims of extortion. Here are just a few examples of the rich and famous facing blackmail:
In 2003, a photographer threatened to sell topless photos and videos of actress Cameron Diaz. The photos were taken when Diaz was 21, years before she came to fame as an actress. Diaz argued that the photographer tried to coerce her into paying him, by threatening to publish the secret explicit content. The photographer was ultimately convicted of attempted grand theft, forgery, and perjury.
In 2009, a former CBS News producer threatened to reveal late-night television host David Letterman’s sexual affairs unless he was paid $2 million in “hush money.” While Letterman gave in to the extortionist’s demands, paying the $2 million, he contacted the New York District Attorney who filed charges. The perpetrator pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree grand larceny and served six months in jail.
A recent example involved Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos. In 2019, Bezos accused the National Enquirer and its parent company of extortion in a post on the publishing platform, Medium.
Specifically, Bezos alleged that the Enquirer obtained text messages revealing Bezos’ relationship with TV anchor Lauren Sanchez. He claimed that when he started looking into how the tabloid obtained those messages, the Enquirer threatened to publish intimate photos of him unless he stopped his investigation.
How You Can Stop Blackmail
If you are confronted by a blackmailer, you have legal rights and options. Fortunately, there are a variety of things you can do to stop blackmail, although your strategy might differ based on your exact circumstances.
Below, we explain several tactics you can use to deal with a blackmailer or extortionist.
What Can You Do if a Blackmailer Threatens to Expose You?
Whether you are dealing with blackmail, sextortion, or revenge porn it is important to remain as calm as possible. Extortion is inherently stressful by design because the perpetrator is purposely trying to “rattle” you. The more you panic, the greater control the extortionist will have over the situation.
At all times, remember that you are the victim of a crime, and you have legal options on your side. In the next few sections, we will explain actionable tips for combatting blackmail.
Resist the Urge to Engage With the Blackmailer
The more you engage with a blackmailer, the more influence and control they will gain over the situation. In fact, blackmailers may take your responses as an indication that you are an easy victim who will cave to their demands. Once they know this, they may make increasingly aggressive demands.
Do Not Try to Negotiate or Pay the Ransom
You do not want to negotiate or pay the extortionist for the same reasons you do not want to engage with them.
Negotiating or giving in to their demands only gives them more power – and they are likely to use this power to make even more threats.
Preserve All Communications and Evidence
Before you block a blackmailer, make sure you screenshot all communications and any relevant evidence. This might include taking a screenshot of their social media profile picture, as well as any offensive material they sent you.
Using your phone’s screenshot feature or your computer’s snipping tool (Ctrl + PrtScr) you can preserve relevant evidence for free. If you are looking for a more advanced tool for preserving evidence, Visualping and Page Vault are effective alternatives.
While some of the evidence might seem embarrassing, it could be tangible evidence that will help your cause. By deleting valuable evidence, it will be much harder (if not impossible) for law enforcement or an attorney to help you.
Enlist Support From a Trusted Person to Document the Evidence
Some extortionists will try to claim that you have tampered with evidence once law enforcement is involved.
The best way to overcome this claim is by having another trusted source (like a friend or family member) preserve evidence as well. This is a useful “back-up” measure that will further strengthen your case and possibly refute an extortionist’s defenses.
Adjust Your Online Privacy Settings
Privacy is always important online, but it becomes especially significant when you are battling blackmail. Most social media sites enable you to set your profile to “private” and block other profiles.
Not only should you maximize privacy settings on all of your social media accounts, but you may also want to block the perpetrator as well. Make sure you preserve all relevant evidence before you block a perpetrator – because you might lose access to their profile data after you block them.
Set Up Online Alerts
There is a simple and straightforward process for setting up Google Alerts for any posts that mention your name.
After creating a Google Alert, you will receive an email anytime someone posts new material that mentions your name (or whatever keywords you wish to follow). This could help you promptly identify any compromising material posted by the blackmailer.
Report the Crime to Law Enforcement
Virtually all forms of blackmail and extortion violate the law. Depending on your specific circumstances, the perpetrator may even be breaking several laws.
Law enforcement agencies can investigate your case and press criminal charges against the blackmailer.
Talk to an Experienced Internet Attorney
In addition to contacting law enforcement, it is wise to consult with an experienced internet attorney. Internet law is highly nuanced and can be complicated to understand.
One of the primary reasons for working with an internet attorney is to prevent sensitive, private content from being released in the first place. They are also able to put an immediate end to blackmail and threats so that you can move forward with your life.
An experienced internet attorney can also help you uncover the identity of an anonymous blackmailer, remove damaging online content, and work with law enforcement agencies to strengthen your case. Finally, internet lawyers can sue extortionists and online harassers for monetary damages for the pain and suffering they cause.
Do Blackmailers Follow Through on Their Threats?
One of the most common questions victims of extortion ask is whether blackmailers actually follow through with their threats. It may be empowering to know that many extortionists never follow through with their threats because they lose leverage once they do.
Some sophisticated perpetrators also know that following through with their threats may alert law enforcement to their activities – ending their illegal money-making scheme.
However, some blackmailers do follow through – so threats should always be taken seriously. This means you will want to seek professional advice and contact appropriate authorities if you are being blackmailed, but do not give in to their demands.
One thing is for sure: blackmailers will never stop demanding money from you if you give in to their threats.
For further reading on blackmailers and sextortionists following through on their threats, and what the follow-through would look like, make sure to read our article by attorney Andrew Stebbins tackling ‘Do Sextortionists Follow Through?’.
What Are Your Legal Options if You Have Been Blackmailed?
When you are blackmailed, you have both legal options for dealing with the threat and other non-legal resources.
Who Can You Contact to Help You Deal With Blackmail?
Many victims of blackmail feel embarrassed about their situation and fear talking to anyone else about the threats. Remember: you do not have to suffer alone. You should confide in someone you trust and seek the help of professionals who can put a stop to the threats.
Blackmailers rely on your fear to pressure you into doing things. Confiding in others can be an empowering process – especially when law enforcement and authorities can charge the perpetrator with a crime.
Reach Out to an Experienced Blackmail Attorney
Contact an experienced internet attorney to determine the best strategy for confronting your blackmailer. Since blackmail can be both a criminal and civil offense, you have several legal options at your disposal. An attorney can help you figure out which options are in your best interest, given your situation.
They can also serve as a confidant and trusted source of advice as you deal with the stress of blackmail. An attorney can also help you remove any explicit content that has been published without your consent.
For instance, Google has a streamlined process for reporting and removing intimate images. If the blackmailer posts explicit content to a revenge porn website, you can usually get that removed as well.
For more information about removing content from revenge porn websites, check out our detailed blog post ‘How to Permanently Remove Content From Revenge Porn Websites’.
Contact Your Local Law Enforcement
Once you preserve and gather as much relevant evidence as possible, you should report the crime to your local police. Law enforcement officers are trained and able to investigate crimes and may even be able to find more information than you were able to obtain on your own.
For instance, if you are dealing with an anonymous blackmailer, police may be able to help you uncover their identity. Local police, in conjunction with your district attorney’s office, are the only authorities that can charge the perpetrator with a crime, so you should involve them as soon as possible.
If for whatever reason, your local police are unwilling or unable to help with your situation, you should contact an experienced internet attorney. An internet attorney might help you gather the information needed to get the local police involved or they can file a civil claim on your behalf.
While a civil case, alone, will not result in jail time for a perpetrator, it could lead to the removal of negative online content. You may also be able to recover monetary damages for the harm caused by the blackmailer.
File a Complaint With the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center
The FBI has an Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) that tracks suspected criminal activity that occurs online. The IC3 is a great option for victims to report any form of online fraud, not just blackmail and extortion.
Once the IC3 receives a complaint, they review the information and forward it to appropriate local, state, and federal authorities. In some circumstances, they will also forward information to international law enforcement bodies.
Further Resources For Help & Support When Dealing With Blackmail
Since extortion can be a federal crime under the Hobbs Act, you may want to report sextortion or blackmail to your local FBI field office. If you have any reason to believe your blackmailer is in or from a foreign country, you can reach out to the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL).
If the victim is a minor (or was a minor at the time explicit content was created), a blackmailer faces significant criminal repercussions. Any form of child pornography should be reported at CyberTipline.org and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Most social media websites also provide ways to report blackmail through their platform. Blackmail threats received over email can also be reported to the appropriate service provider through these links:
What is the Maximum Penalty For Blackmail or Extortion?
Each state and the federal government punish blackmail differently. In most cases, blackmail and extortion are felonies and carry a penalty including imprisonment. Some states differentiate between degrees of extortion – with blackmail involving bodily harm punished severely.
Here are some examples of how different states punish blackmailers:
- Ohio – Extortion is a third-degree felony punishable by 1 to 5 years in prison and/or a fine up to $10,000.
- New York – Larceny by extortion sentences depend on the value of the property involved and whether violence has occurred. At a minimum, blackmail is a class “E” felony with a potential sentence of up to 4 years.
- Texas – Extortion falls under theft and penalties vary based on the value of the property stolen among several other factors. At a minimum, a conviction can lead to prison time, fines, or both.
What Are Possible Legal Defenses Against Extortion or Blackmail?
There are several ways that someone accused of blackmail may try to defend themselves. The most common defenses raised in extortion or blackmail cases are:
It is imperative to preserve all communications with the blackmailer so they will not succeed on an insufficient evidence claim.
Also, extortionists may try to argue that evidence was obtained illegally, like an illegal seizure, interrogation, or coercion.
Lack of Intent
Both blackmail and extortion must be intentional, meaning the perpetrator must knowingly threaten and induce fear in exchange for something of value.
Proof of Incapacity, Insanity, or Intoxication
This defense is similar to a lack of intent, where a defendant claims that they did not fully know what they were doing because of a developmental or mental disability, or intoxication.
Statute of Limitations
Every jurisdiction has a different statute of limitations for blackmail, which is a limit on how long you can wait to file a lawsuit or press charges.
Ownership Over the Property
If a defendant proves that they were merely asking for the return of property that was lawfully theirs in the first place, they will likely overcome an allegation of blackmail.
Absence of Threat, Force, or Fear
A defendant may try to claim that they never threatened the victim, coerced them, or intended to induce fear to defend against blackmail charges.
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.
For further reading protecting yourself against blackmail and sextortion, check out the following blog posts: ‘How to Avoid Webcam Sextortion Scams During COVID-19’ and ‘What to Do If You Are the Victim of Facebook Sextortion’.
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. In a word, blackmail is always serious – and you should involve people who can help.
Find Out How Minc Law Can Help Stop Blackmail & Hold Blackmailers Liable
The experienced internet attorneys at Minc Law know how to hold blackmailers accountable for their criminal actions. Our firm also puts an immediate end to blackmail and threats so victims can move forward from the trauma of extortion.
We utilize an extensive arsenal of online investigative services and tools to prevent the release of sensitive information and media, help victims identify anonymous blackmailers, and subsequently monitor the internet for future attacks.
“If you find yourself in an unfortunate sexploitation situation, I highly recommend Minc Laws services. Andrew worked my case and did an excellent job. As soon as he took my case he made me feel at ease and laid out the plan of action. There is no better feeling than knowing someone has your back when something like this occurs.”
CJ, Jan 19, 2021
To schedule a free consultation to determine the best strategy to respond to online blackmail, sextortion. extortion, or revenge porn, call us at (216) 373-7706, speak with a Chat representative, or fill out our online contact form.