The term blackmail describes the act of threatening to make someone suffer in some way unless they meet certain demands. Generally, it involves the threat of revealing embarrassing or damaging information about a person in order to coerce them to do something. Classified as a criminal offense, it a form of extortion. To explore the concept, consider the following blackmail definition.

Definition of Blackmail


  1. The act of demanding payment, or a certain action, from another person in return for not revealing compromising or damaging information.


16th century   Scottish (Mail)

What is Blackmail?

The word blackmail originated in the 16th century in the border regions of England and Scotland. During this period, settlers paid chieftains for protection from Scottish thieves and marauders. In modern law, it is the crime of demanding something from another person in return for not revealing compromising information. The blackmailer may threaten to:

  • Reveal private information about a person that would cause embarrassment or emotional distress
  • Report a person’s involvement in a crime
  • Falsely accuse a person of a crime
  • Reveal sensitive information that would cause financial harm

An example of blackmail involved one of the earliest political scandals in the United States. In 1791, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, a married man, became involved with a married woman. The woman’s husband learned of the affair and ordered Hamilton to pay him to keep quiet about the affair. Later, when authorities caught the husband in a plot to defraud the government, he claimed that Hamilton was involved. Hamilton admitted to the affair but denied the corruption accusations.

Is Blackmail a Crime?

Both state and federal laws consider blackmail to be a crime, though these laws vary by jurisdiction. Some states classify it as a distinct criminal offense, but the majority classify it as theft when it demands money. Relevant laws and the value of the property stolen also determine whether it is a misdemeanor or felony. The punishment also varies based on the severity, but can include fines and/or imprisonment.

Blackmail becomes a federal crime when someone attempts to gain money or something of value by:

  • Threatening to report or testify against a person for violating federal law if they do not meet their demands.
  • Threatening to use information about a politician to influence a political outcome.
  • Using mail, the internet, telephone system, or other interstate means of communication to convey threats of blackmail.

In some examples of blackmail, the crime may fall on the state level, but incorporate other charges such as federal extortion. When this occurs, the defendant is subject to stiffer penalties.

Difference Between Blackmail and Extortion

While some people use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference between blackmail and extortion. Whereas blackmail is a crime based on information, extortion is a crime based on force. Extortion, a type of theft, involves the threat of physical harm or destruction in order to obtain something of value. It can also entail a government official misusing authority to coerce a person. An example of extortion is a police officer threatening to arrest someone if they refuse to pay them.

With blackmail, a person threatens to reveal personal information instead of using threats of harm or destruction. Though there is a difference between blackmail and extortion, the law considers both criminal acts.

What to Do if Someone is Blackmailing You

You might wonder what to do if someone is blackmailing you. The first thing to know is not to resort to making threats of your own or becoming physically violent. It is also important not to comply as this can lead to more demands. First, evaluate the situation to decide if the blackmailer poses a real threat. Talk to someone you trust so they can add perspective to the situation.

If, after assessing the situation you feel that the perpetrator can cause you irreparable harm, contact the authorities. Follow the directions of law enforcement, even if they make you uncomfortable. This may include dealing with another round of demands to gather more evidence. Police can handle the situation if someone is blackmailing you and can prevent the offender from doing it again.

Cyber Blackmail

Advancements in technology have brought about new crimes, including what is informally known as cyber blackmail or webcam blackmail. This may involve someone threatening to publish intimate videos or photos of an individual unless they meet their demands. The blackmailer will request money, something else of value, or additional photos or videos. Like all forms of blackmail, cyber blackmail is crime in all states. Victims of cyber blackmail can report the incident to local authorities or the Department of Justice.

Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail occurs between two people who have a personal or intimate relationship. The perpetrator uses threats, punishment, and guilt to control the other person’s behavior. They may threaten to withhold something abstract such as love or threaten to harm relationships.

An emotional blackmailer may also threaten to damage something the victim values or inflict self-harm. On some occasions, they use a combination of guilt and threats. As an example of blackmail, the blackmailer may justify why they stole the victim’s money by telling them “I did it because you don’t care what I need.”

Even though emotional blackmail rarely involves physical violence, it is a form of abuse. The victim should resist giving into the blackmailer’s demands and remove himself from the situation or relationship. Victims should also take threats of violence seriously and report it to law enforcement.

Blackmail Example Involving a Celebrity

In 2009, Robert Halderman, former CBS News producer, learned that “Late Show” host David Letterman was engaged in extramarital affairs. On September 9, he gave Letterman’s driver a sealed envelope containing several documents. Included was a letter threatening to ruin Letterman if he did not pay a large sum of money. That same month, Halderman met with Letterman’s lawyer to discuss the terms of the arrangement.

On October 1, 2009, he received a check for $2 million dollars in exchange for his silence. The next day police arrested him, and the court later released the blackmailer on $200,000 bail. Letterman announced the situation on his show and admitted to affairs with female staffers. Rather than go to trial, the man pled guilty and received six months in jail, five years on probation, and 1,000 hours of community service.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Defendant – A party who is the target of a lawsuit in civil court, or who stands accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Evidence – Information presented to a court or jury in proof of the facts, including testimony of witnesses, records, documents, or objects.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony.
  • Offense – A violation of law or rule, the committing of an illegal act.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
  • Victim – A person who suffered some type of harm as a result of another person’s criminal act, accident, or other event.