The term extortion refers to the crime of obtaining money or property by using threats of harm against the victim, or against his property or family. Extortion might involve threats of damage to the victim’s reputation, or to his financial well being. Anything obtained by the use of extortion, including consent, has been illegally obtained, and the perpetrator has committed a felony. To explore this concept, consider the following extortion definition.

Definition of Extortion


  1. The act of obtaining something of value by using threats, force, or abuse of authority.


1250-1300        Middle English extortion

What is Extortion

Extortion is a crime in which one person attempts to force another person to do something against his will. Extortion is used to force the victim to give property or money to the perpetrator, or to take some action, such as giving someone a promotion, or voting for something. This is done by threatening the victim’s property, person, or loved ones with harm, by intimidating the victim, or by falsely claiming a right. While extortion cases generally must contain some type of threat to the victim, his property, or his family to be classified as extortion, it does not need to involve actual physical injury, or relate to any other specific unlawful act.

Extortion Laws

Extortion laws vary by jurisdiction, but generally require the perpetrator to maliciously make verbal or written threats with the intent of gaining something of value from the victim, or to compel the victim to do something he does not wish to do. Extortion laws in most states do not required that the victim actually hear or receive the threats, nor does the perpetrator have to succeed in the goal of his extortion, as the threat alone constitutes the crime.

Degrees of Extortion

Extortion laws vary by state, with many states using degrees of extortion to classify the severity of the crime. For example, first degree extortion usually involves the perpetrator making threats of physical harm or confinement, such as kidnapping. Second degree might apply if the perpetrator threatens to falsely accuse the victim of having committed a crime, or threatens to expose a secret.

Difference Between Extortion and Robbery

Extortion and robbery seem similar, but the difference between the two is that extortion requires the perpetrator to make a threat verbally, or in writing, robbery does not. Robbery often makes use of immediate threats of violence, and actual force in order to gain something from another person. With extortion, the victim willingly hands over whatever the perpetrator is asking for in order to avoid suffering from damages, violence, or exposure at a later date.

For example:

Gavin, who is a salesperson at XYZ Marketing Corp., knows that the corporate president, William, is having an affair with Gavin’s secretary. Although he has been at the company for 12 years, Gavin has been unable to rise any higher than his current position, and he is envious of the higher salary and generous perks offered to the district managers. Gavin places a note in William’s car, telling him that he will tell William’s wife about the affair unless he promotes Gavin to District Supervisor within 2 weeks. Gavin has committed extortion.

Extortion Penalties

Extortion penalties vary by state, but generally the crime is punished as a felony, which is the most serious category of crime. Depending on the severity of the threats made, extortion penalties often garner prison sentences of 2 to 4 years. If, however, the perpetrator used any instrument of interstate commerce, meaning the U.S. mail, a telephone, or a computer, to make the threats, or in any part of committing the crime, it becomes a federal crime, with a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

On rare occasion, extortion cases can be pled down to misdemeanors, the penalties for which may be fines, probation, community service, and restitution. Imprisonment in the local jail for less than one year may also be imposed. It is common for an individual convicted of extortion to face a combination of penalties.

The Lindbergh Kidnapping and Extortion Case

On March 1, 1932, Charles Lindbergh, Jr., 20-month old son of the famous aviator, was taken from his nursery in Hopewell, New Jersey. A search of the mansion turned up a $50,000 ransom note left on the nursery windowsill. As the police investigated the scene of the crime, a number of clues were found, that were ultimately useless in locating the child. Five days later, Colonel Lindbergh received a second ransom note increasing the demand for the safe return of the baby to $70,000.

Two days after the second ransom note, a third note arrived at the family’s attorney’s office demanding that the Lindberghs’ replies be published in the local newspaper, rather than communicated through a third party. After a total of 13 notes, an increase in ransom to $100,000, then a decrease and payoff of $50,000 to a man named “John,” the child was not produced.

A few weeks later, on May 12, 1932, little Charles’ body was found partially buried near a highway 45 miles away from the Lindbergh home. The coroner determined that the baby had been dead about two months, which meant that through all of the desperate negotiations, there had been no chance for the Lindberghs to get their baby boy back from the kidnapper.

Two years later, police discovered the identity of the man who murdered the Lindbergh baby and extorted the Lindbergh family. Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested on September 18, 1934, and indicted on charges of extortion and murder on October 8, 1934. After a trial that lasted 5 weeks, Hauptmann was sentenced to death. He was executed on April 3, 1936.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony; generally those punishable by a fine, probation, community service, or imprisonment of less than one year.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.

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