Extortion requires a minimum of two people --- the extortionist and his victim. Other elements of extortion include threats or intimidation by the extortionist with the express purpose of gaining money or property from the victim (either people or businesses). It may be instigated by a public official, a neighborhood bully or a personal antagonist. Finally, the threat must be timed to occur simultaneously with, or just prior to, receipt of gains by the extortionist.
Threats of Harm
To get an extortion conviction, prosecutors need to show that the extortionist threatened physical harm against his victim and that the victim believed the threat was imminent, even if it wasn't carried out. Threats might be also be aimed at the victim's family or friends, property, business or reputation. Threats may even be extended against witnesses intending to testify against the extortionist.
Threats to Expose the "Truth"
It's not illegal to expose someone's crimes or immoral acts. Exposing somenone's criminal or immoral acts only becomes illegal when an extortionist threatens to expose the indiscretion unless payment is forthcoming. The extortion victim may, in truth, have committed the crime or immoral act in question. However, the extortionist cannot use this "truth" as a defense because he was being paid to keep that information quiet, and he threatened to expose the "truth" and ruin the victim's reputation.
Threats Timed to Coincide with Payments
The extortion victim doesn't literally have a gun to the head. However, the victim will feel a figurative gun to the head because the extortionist's threat comes at the same time as, or shortly before, demands for payment. The victim is usually expected to pay up within a short period of time after the threats are made or the extortionist will make good his threat by a certain date or time. For the prosecutor, the timing between the threat and the payment or fulfillment of the threat is everything when it comes to proving extortion.
Making the Threats
Threats may be made in person, by mail or e-mail or by phone. Threats could also be carried out by sending a package to the victim along the stereotypical lines of the Mafia threats --- a box containing a dead rat or some other item that the victim will take as a threat.
Extortion by Public Officials
Public officials (e.g. police, building inspectors) have been known to use the authority of their office to obtain fees or fines in one of four ways. First, the fee collected may be more than the victim owes. Secondly, the fee or fine claimed by the official isn't actually allowed by law, but the victim still feels obligated to pay. Third, the official claims that the fee is due now, when in fact, it isn't due until much later. Fourth, the official accepts fees for services not rendered.
Extortionists Targeting Financial Institutions
Extortionists bully financial institutions by threatening harm to the owner, employees or agents of the institution. They could also threaten damage to any property owned or managed by the institution. This is a Class H felony, punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment, which differs by state.
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