Blackmail v. Extortion v. Bribery: What’s the Difference?

What the difference between blackmail, extortion, and bribery?


Blackmail Definition: Blackmail is the act of demanding payment from another person (victim), with the threat that the blackmailer (defendant) will reveal disparaging and secret information about the victim if the victim does not make the payment demanded.


The “payment” in a blackmail scheme can be money, goods, or services that is demanded by the blackmailer. The “disparaging information” can be related to the victim’s criminal, or non-criminal conduct.


Blackmail Example: A threat to expose an extra-marital affair unless money is paid to the person threatening the exposure…is blackmail. The same is true where a person threatens to call the police to report welfare fraud unless payment is made to the person who threatens to call the police.


Extortion Definition: Extortion is the act of demanding unlawful payment through force or threats of bodily harm.


Extortion Example: A threat to break a person’s legs if the person does not make a payment towards an illegal loan…is extortion.


Blackmail v. Extortion: The difference between blackmail and extortion is the use of force or threats that is present in an extortion case.


Note: The threat associated with extortion may be to expose a secret of another person unless payment is made (similar to blackmail), but with extortion, the exposure of the secret is otherwise unlawful. With blackmail, the exposure is not necessarily unlawful in and of itself (i.e., threat to expose a crime unless payment made = blackmail; threat to expose private nude photos of another person unless payment is made = extortion).


Bribery Definition: Bribery is payment to another person for an official act, such as bribing a judge to make a particular legal decision. For example, it is bribery when a referee is paid to make a particular “call” in a sporting event. It is also bribery when a referee is paid to not make a particular “call” in a sporting event. The "payment" in a bribery case can be money, goods, or services.


The difference between Bribery and Extortion or Blackmail is that bribery does not include a demand for payment (blackmail) or a threat for payment (extortion). With bribery, all parties are willing participants to the taking of a bribe. If there are threats that are related to the taking of a bribe, then the correct terminology is either blackmail or extortion.


Note: California law does not charge a defendant with “blackmail.” This is because blackmail is basically extortion without the threat of physical harm. Instead, California law charges extortion when a blackmail offense is committed, but the extortion charge is usually classified as a misdemeanor. When threats of physical harm are present in an extortion case, then California district attorneys usually charge felony extortion charges.


For further information on the difference between blackmail, extortion, and bribery, please visit our articles on California criminal law at PC 502 (Extortion), and Bribery.


If you have been charged with the crime of extortion or bribery, contact our criminal defense lawyers for a free consultation without delay. Our experienced criminal defense attorneys defend all misdemeanor and felony crimes, including criminal charges of extortion, bribery, robbery, murder, lewd acts, theft crimes, drugs crimes, battery, domestic battery, serious felonies, violent felonies, DUI, prostitution, and more. Call today!


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Blackmail, Extortion, & Bribery: What's the Difference?