Have you ever found yourself asking, “Is blackmail illegal?” The quick answer is, yes, it is. In this article, we explore the details of the law about blackmail, its various forms, and penalties across different jurisdictions.

Quick Facts: Is Blackmail Illegal?

  • Blackmail is illegal.
  • Under 18 U.S. Code § 873, blackmail is a federal felony.
  • The crime forces someone to do something they don't want to do, often by threatening harm or revealing damaging info.
  • Offenders can face up to 1 year in prison and hefty fines.
  • The maximum sentence for blackmail is 15 years in prison (up to 20 years in serious crimes)
  • If you're a victim, it's best not to respond to the blackmailer; keep all communications and report the incident to the authorities.

Blackmail Law

In 2022 alone, the FBI recorded 800,944 complaints of cyber crimes in the US. Losses exceeding $10.3 billion. Criminals continue to target U.S. networks and use them for blackmailing and fraud. Keep reading to learn about the legal framework to combat this threatening trend.

cases is blackmail illegal


What is blackmail?

Blackmail is a crime that involves coercing someone to act against their will, often involving threats of harm or exposing damaging information. It is an offense that leverages power dynamics and manipulates victims into surrendering money, property, or services.

The legal definition of blackmail involves someone demanding or receiving value by threatening to report a U.S. law violation. Or, it can be a payoff for keeping quiet.


What elements of blackmail are there?

There are several elements of blackmail crime. These include:



The blackmailer issues a threat to the victim.


The blackmailer has a clear intention to make the victim do something against their will.


The victim must be made to fear the consequences should they fail to comply.

The action made by the blackmailer might not always be illegal itself. The focus is on the threat and intent to get something from the victim.

Blackmail can take many forms, from threats of physical harm to threatening to expose sensitive information or secrets. It can occur in personal relationships, professional settings, or even between strangers over the internet.


Is blackmail a felony or misdemeanor?

Blackmail can be classified as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the severity of the act and the jurisdiction in which it is committed.

The federal blackmail statute, 18 USC § 873, states that blackmail is a felony. Offenders can face up to 1-year blackmail sentence and hefty fines.


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What type of blackmail is illegal?

All types of blackmail are illegal. This ranges from physical threats to intimidation through the exposure of sensitive information.

is blackmail illegal types



Threatening to reveal embarrassing or damaging information

This is the most common form of blackmail. The perpetrator threatens to reveal information that could embarrass the victim or damage their reputation unless the victim complies with the perpetrator's demands.

Threatening to cause physical harm

The perpetrator threatens to physically harm the victim or someone close to the victim unless the victim complies with the perpetrator's demands.

Threatening to cause property damage

The perpetrator threatens to damage the victim's property unless the victim complies with the perpetrator's demands.

Threatening to harm someone's reputation

The perpetrator threatens to harm the victim's reputation, for example, by spreading false information about them, unless the victim complies with the perpetrator's demands.

Threatening to report someone's immigration status

The perpetrator threatens to report the victim or someone close to the victim to immigration authorities unless the victim complies with the perpetrator's demands.

Please note that laws vary by jurisdiction, and what is considered illegal blackmail in one place may not be considered illegal in another. Always consult with a legal professional for advice specific to your situation.


What is proof of blackmail?

Proof of blackmail can include written or recorded threats, evidence of coercion or intimidation, and testimonies from the victim or witnesses.

The proof of blackmail typically includes:

proofs of is blackmail illegal

1. Threat: Evidence that the perpetrator threatened the victim.

2. Unlawful Demand: Evidence that the perpetrator demanded something from the victim unlawfully.

3. Intent: Evidence that the perpetrator intended to make the threat and demand.

4. Evidence: This can include:

  • Written or Recorded Communication: Any letters, emails, text messages, or recorded phone calls in which the threat and demand are made.
  • Witness Testimony: Anyone who heard or saw the threat being made can testify.
  • Victim's Testimony: The victim can testify about the threat and demand.
  • Bank Records or Other Financial Documents: If the demand was for money, bank records or other financial documents can show that the victim paid the perpetrator.


What to do if someone blackmails you?

If you find yourself a victim of blackmail, here are the steps you should take:


Don't Respond to Threats

It's generally advisable not to engage with the blackmailer or give in to their demands, as this can encourage further threats.

Preserve Evidence

Keep all communications from the blackmailer, including text messages, emails, and voicemails. These can serve as evidence if you decide to report the crime.

Report to Authorities

Report the blackmail to your local law enforcement agency. They can provide guidance and help investigate the crime.

Consult a Lawyer

A lawyer can provide legal advice tailored to your situation and help protect your rights.

Inform Trusted Individuals

Let trusted friends or family members know about the situation so they can provide support and help ensure your safety.

In certain situations, you can obtain a restraining order against a blackmailer. However, you must present solid evidence and ensure it’s recognized in your state.

Extortion Law

In 2022, the U.S. recorded 39,416 extortion cases, ranking as the 4th largest cybercrime category. Let’s delve into the legal definition of extortion and how the law governs it.

extortion cases is blackmail illegal


What is extortion?

Extortion means forcing someone to give up money, property, or valuables through intimidation. Perpetrators often threaten a person’s safety, family, and reputation, or suggest negative government actions.

The goal is to make the victim feel they must meet the demands to avoid the threatened consequences.


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What are the types of extortion?

The 4 main types of extortion include physical, financial, digital, and legal. Here’s a simplified breakdown:

  • Physical Extortion: Extortionists use threats, violence, or intimidation, possibly threatening bodily harm or damage to property or loved ones.
  • Financial Extortion: Here, coercion pushes individuals to part with money or property.
  • Digital Extortion: Cybercriminals exploit technology for extortion, like encrypting computer files in ransomware attacks or threatening to leak digital data unless they receive payment.
  • Legal Extortion: Individuals manipulate legal systems to their benefit, like threatening lawsuits to force others into compliance.

FBI investigates extortion cases, particularly those that involve federal law or cross state lines.


Penalties for Extortion

Extortion penalties often involve jail time, fines, or both. Also, a victim can sue for emotional distress due to the consequences of extortion. This can result in additional penalties for the extortionist. Whether it’s treated as a federal crime depends on the state law and the crime’s details.

Extortion is a federal crime. Convictions can attract fines, sometimes exceeding $10,000 per conviction. Extortion jail time can reach up to 20 years.

The minimum sentence for extortion is 18 months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Extortion vs Blackmail

So how is extortion different from blackmail? Let’s find out.


What is the difference between blackmail and extortion?

While both involve threat, the key difference is that extortion involves coercion of harm or damage to property, while blackmail involves threatening to reveal embarrassing or damaging information.

is blackmail illegal vs extortion


Examples of blackmail and extortion

Real-world examples can help distinguish between these two crimes.


Blackmail case

In a recent case, journalist Lee Harpin faces accusations of blackmail linked to phone hacking activities. PR executive claims during a trial that Harpin, having key roles at major newspapers, blackmailed his employer. He threatened to unveil the phone hacking secrets if faced with repercussions for his involvement. All this was during a time when the Daily Mirror was already under a hacking spotlight. The newspaper has since parted with over £100m and several journalists are out on bail for phone hacking settlements.

This case underscores journalism’s ethical tightrope and the perils of using blackmail as a shield.


Extortion case

Meanwhile, in a high-profile extortion case, Steven Nerayoff, an early Ethereum network advisor, came under the spotlight. Accused of extorting a Seattle cryptocurrency startup, it was alleged they threatened to “destroy” the company unless paid millions.

However, in a twist, federal prosecutors dropped charges against Nerayoff, citing substantial evidence that challenged their case’s credibility. Nerayoff’s defense shifted the narrative, suggesting he was ensnared by the FBI in an attempt to extract information about his crypto contacts.


In the first case, the essence of blackmail hinges on the potential exposure of confidential information. In contrast, the second case underscores the gravity of threats aimed at obliterating a company, further intensified by the overtones of legal extortion.

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State Blackmail Law

Let’s look at examples of how blackmail laws vary from state to state.

is blackmail illegal by states


New York

In New York, extortion starts as a class E felony, not a mere misdemeanor. Penalties span up to 4 years, but threats involving violence or property damage elevate the crime to a class C felony, punishable by up to 15 years. Depending on the extorted property's value, charges can range from a class E to class B felony, with the latter bringing a potential 25-year sentence.


Blackmail charges in Texas vary. Gains below $100 lead to a Class C misdemeanor with typically a $500 fine. Extorting $300,000 or more brings a first-degree felony charge with a potential sentence of 5 to 99 years and a fine of up to $10,000. Values between $2,500 and $30,000 are deemed a state jail felony, punishable by 6 months to 2 years in jail and the same fine.


Nevada categorizes extortion as a category B felony. Standard penalties are 1 to 10 years in prison, fines up to $10,000, and restitution. But, “extortionate collection for debt” carries a shorter 1 to 6-year sentence. Blackmail convictions stay on records for 5 years before possible sealing.


Blackmail examples under Penal Code 518 include threats to expose affairs for money, pressuring officials through force, or demanding compensation under threats of reporting crimes. The law against blackmail and extortion in California sees violations as felonies with up to 4 years in prison, a maximum $10,000 fine, and possible felony probation.

For a detailed review in your state, please consult a professional attorney or contact us. A lawyer can guide you through the legal process, represent you in court, and work towards achieving the best possible outcome for your case.


Blackmail is a serious crime with substantial penalties, varying from state to state and under federal law. Being informed about blackmail and extortion, their differences, and how they’re treated legally can help individuals navigate and seek appropriate legal help when necessary.

Faced with blackmail or extortion? Consult with expert lawyers or contact us for assistance in the shortest time.

Frequently Asked Questions

Have any questions about blackmail law?

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What is proof of blackmail?

Written or recorded threats, evidence of coercion, and testimonies from victims or witnesses can serve as proof of blackmail.

Is it illegal to threaten to ruin someone's life?

Yes, such threats can constitute blackmail or extortion, both of which are illegal.

Will the police help if someone is blackmailing you?

Yes, you should report incidents of blackmail to the police for investigation.

Should I ignore a blackmailer?

No, you should document interactions and report them to the police and a lawyer. Do not engage or negotiate with the blackmailer.

How long can you go to jail for blackmail?

From 1 year at the federal level to 25+ years in some states.

William Green lawyer
William Green
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