Extortion Vs. Blackmail: What Is The Difference?

dark blue text "extortion vs blackmail" on light blue background

Quick summary

The word extortion refers to the act of getting something from someone through violence, threats, or other forms of coercion. The word blackmail typically refers to a specific type of extortion in which a person demands payment under threats of revealing secret information. The specific legal definitions of extortion and blackmail depend on federal and state law. 

They say crime doesn’t pay, but people who commit extortion and blackmail would probably disagree. Are these criminals committing the same crime, or will they face different charges?

In this article, we will define the words extortion and blackmail, break down the difference between them, and give examples of how they might be applied to different criminal scenarios.

What is the difference between extortion and blackmail?

Generally speaking, extortion is the act of getting something (such as money, property, or services) from someone through violence, threats, intimidation, abuse of authority, or other forms of coercion

For example, if a person threatens to burn down a store unless the owner pays them money, that’s extortion. 

Go Behind The Words!

Get the fascinating stories of your favorite words in your inbox.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

On the other hand, blackmail is the act of getting money from someone through extortion. To blackmail someone is to use extortion—such as threats, violence, or abuse of authority—to get money from them. Frequently, the blackmailer threatens to reveal embarrassing or incriminating information about the person being blackmailed. 

For example, if a person demands that a celebrity pay them money not to reveal evidence of the celebrity committing adultery, that’s blackmail.

Blackmail, then, is often considered to be a type of extortion rather than a synonym for the word extortion. Extortion is typically used as the more general term, while blackmail is more specific. 

Both extortion and blackmail are criminal acts under United States federal and state law, however. In law, these terms are closely related. In federal law they are used interchangeably to refer to the same crime, which is considered a misdemeanor

At the state level, laws regarding blackmail and extortion vary from state to state. In general, state law considers threats using force to be extortion and threats using information to be blackmail. But depending on the state, blackmail may be considered a type of extortion, or both acts may be classified as distinct types of coercion. In most states, both crimes are classified as felonies

Stay out of trouble by learning the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony!

Previous ¡Oye! Do You Know What Cinco De Mayo Is Really About? Next Always Intended: The Pun Hall of Fame