Though blackmail can happen in a range of very different circumstances, in most cases it can be classified into three broad types: extortion, coercion, and commercial pressure. Extortion usually involves some sort of monetary transaction in exchange for keeping certain information private. Coercion, on the other hand, usually deals with actions: someone can convince another to do some activity, usually a crime, in order to prevent the spread of something like a story or photo. Commercial pressure involves business decisions. This can take various forms, but usually requires steep payouts in exchange for silence on certain topics like investment fraud or other violations of corporate law or ethics. All types are illegal in most places, but proving that they are happening can be very difficult. Prosecution can also be a hard choice for many victims since court action usually means that whatever secret or private information is at the heart of the issue will be made public.
Basics of the Practice
The term “blackmail” is usually used for situations where one person or group of people discovers information that someone else doesn’t want exposed, then uses the threat of exposing that information to profit in some way. Depending on how incendiary or important the information is, people are often willing to go to great lengths to keep it quiet. Extramarital affairs are one common example; in some places, allegations of homosexuality can also be valuable material. Almost anything can qualify, though, as long as the person or people involved are motivated to keep whatever it is from being known.
Extortion happens when the person with the secret information contacts the target and demands money in exchange for silence. In most cases this comes in the form of a direct threat, and the privileged person usually produces evidence — like photos, hotel receipts, or email exchanges — as well as some idea of how it will be used if the demands aren’t met. He or she could threaten to send the information to a spouse or boss, for instance, or could say that it will be published online. People who are famous or otherwise well known might also be threatened with media exposure. It’s not uncommon for this sort of extortion to go on for years at great cost, though a lot of this depends on how inflammatory the information is and how badly the target wants to keep it quiet.
Blackmailing by coercion doesn’t usually involve money, at least not directly. In these instances, the target is usually told to commit some sort of action or behave in some specific way to avoid being exposed. Extreme examples involve the commission of crimes; targets are sometimes coerced to do things like rob stores, murder people, or launder money through their companies to avoid having their secrets told. It could also involve something simpler, like performing favors or tasks for the person with the information for no compensation other than the promise of silence. The key in these cases is usually that the target feels forced to do something he wouldn’t otherwise do or doesn’t want to do.
In the business realm, initiators usually have information that could be really damaging to a company or brand’s public image. A company that does something like illegally dump toxic waste might be a good target; so might a business that has engaged in questionable investing practices or that has lied on financial reports. Most corporate pressure cases involve extortion, where the instigator threatens to reveal the information unless he or she is paid. Threats in these situations usually involve media leaks or talks with major competitors. Coercion can come in too, however, particularly if the initiator could benefit. If he or she is an employee, for instance, he or she could demand a promotion, a pay raise, or other improved benefits in exchange for keeping the secret; if he or she is a competitor, the demands might involve reducing productivity for certain items or allowing the competitor to take the lead in certain arenas.
Corporate cases are usually considered their own separate class because, in most cases, information that is bad enough to tempt a company to conceal it is usually bad enough that it could harm investors, the public, or both. From this perspective, both the initiator and the company could be in the wrong by trying to keep the information quiet, which only serves to compound the problem.
Legal Ramifications and Challenges
The legal interpretation of each type may vary slightly by jurisdiction, but in most cases courts judge them by two standards. First is the intent to use embarrassing information or threats of physical harm as leverage to gain favors. The second standard is that the initiator would not receive compensation or an agreement to commit an unlawful act from the victim in the absence of the threats.
Proving extortion, coercion, or commercial pressure might be difficult, depending on the evidence that exists. Physical evidence, such as an audio or video recording, often leads to a stronger case. Courts may also consider whether the accused has a criminal history, as well as the value of compensation sought and how long the arrangement lasted. In most cases, though, bringing a blackmailer to trial necessarily requires that all of the facts are made public — including the basis of the relationship, which is to say, the secret that’s being kept. Someone who is paying to keep a spouse from knowing of an affair, for example, would defeat the entire point by exposing everything in court. As such, people are often hesitant to report these sorts of threats and problems unless there is some other overarching issue that makes a formal judgment worth it.