Skip to content

Is Blackmail Illegal? Exploring Legal Insights, Technological Influences, and Defenses

Ben Michael

Under federal laws and all state laws, blackmail is illegal. Generally, blackmail involves demanding money, property or services in exchange for not exposing potentially damaging information. For example, someone might try forcing a victim to pay $100,000 in order to keep quiet about a marital affair.

Defining Blackmail

Simply put, blackmail is a form of extortion. When someone blackmails you, they’re threatening to expose information that could do damage to you, your family or your organization. The blackmailer typically agrees to withhold potentially harmful information if you’re willing to give up cash, property or something else they consider valuable.

In some cases, a blackmailer may threaten violence if a victim fails to cooperate.

Examples of blackmail include threats to:

  • Publish nude photos of you online.
  • Leak secrets about your company.
  • Expose your marital affair.

Blackmail may even go as far as threatening to falsely accuse you of a crime or alert a law enforcement agency to your role in a crime.

A blackmailer might make their threats online, over the phone, by email, via traditional mail or even in person.

Elements of Blackmail

The key element of blackmail is demanding money, property, services or something else of value in exchange for the blackmailer staying silent about potentially damaging information about you, your family or your organization.

Under California law, for example, elements of blackmail — which falls under the state’s legal code about extortion — includes threats to:

  • Accuse someone of a crime.
  • Reveal someone else’s secret.
  • Injure someone.
  • Use fear or force to gain money, property or consent from the victim, or cause the victim to carry out a certain act.

In conjunction with these elements, the victim must obey a blackmailer’s demands based on a threat or use of force.

Texas law lumps blackmail and extortion into the same category, treating both crimes as theft. However, while extortion as defined by Texas law includes the threat of violence, blackmail normally lacks the element of violence.

Similar to other states, Texas views blackmail as a threat to divulge a victim’s embarrassing information or harm a victim’s standing in the community. To qualify as blackmail in Texas, a blackmail victim must silence a blackmailer by offering money, property or services.

To charge someone with blackmail (or extortion) in Texas, the following elements must be in place:

  • Verbal, nonverbal or written threats.
  • Intent to blackmail or extort the victim.
  • Intent to cause a victim to experience fear.
  • A requirement that an item of value, even if it’s not money or property, be demanded of the victim by a blackmailer or extortionist.

Each state and the federal government treat blackmail as a crime. It’s often charged as a felony, but it might be a misdemeanor. In many cases, blackmail is classified as a form of extortion, coercion, or theft.

States vary on how they punish blackmail.

If someone is found guilty of a blackmail charge under state law, they might face penalties that align with the value of property or services that the blackmailer sought or got. Typically, a higher value results in a bigger penalty.

In other states, someone convicted of blackmail or a similar crime might face punishment based on what kind of threat was involved. In New York, for example, a threat of damaging someone’s reputation through blackmail (theft by extortion) can be charged with a Class E felony. But if the blackmailer threatened to cause physical harm or damage property, the crime of blackmail becomes a more severe Class C felony.

In some states, the legal situation can get even worse if a blackmailer actually receives something of value from the victim. For example, a California blackmailer who got money through a blackmail threat involving harm to someone’s body or reputation could be sentenced to four years in prison.

Legal Consequences of Blackmail in Texas

Texas classifies blackmail as a type of theft. Under state law, someone can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony if they’re suspected of committing blackmail (extortion). The penalties rise as the value of the extortion rises.

So, if the value of the property obtained in a Texas blackmail scheme is valued at less than $100, someone can be convicted of a Class C misdemeanor. The punishment is typically a $500 fine.

Here are the other penalties for committing blackmail in Texas:

  • Theft between $100 and $750 — Class B misdemeanor with up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.
  • Theft between $750 and $2,500 — Class A misdemeanor with up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
  • Theft between $2,500 and $30,000 — State jail felony with up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
  • Theft between $30,000 and $150,000 — Third-degree felony with up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
  • Theft between $150,000 and $300,000 — Second-degree felony with up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
  • Theft over $300,000 — First-degree felony with up to life in prison and a $10,000 fine.

At the federal level, a blackmailer faces a misdemeanor charge that carries a sentence of as much as one year in prison. Other kinds of blackmail can lead to harsher punishment, such as 20 years in federal prison.

Distinctions Between Blackmail and Other Offenses

Distinctions between blackmail and other offenses differ from state to state. Generally, though, states view threats involving information as blackmail and threats involving force as extortion. Elsewhere, however, blackmail might be defined as a kind of coercion. Or blackmail and extortion might be under the legal umbrella of coercion.

Depending on the state, a blackmail-related crime might be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. 

State Blackmail Laws

As you might expect, each state treats blackmail differently:

  • In California, for example, laws regarding blackmail are tied to laws regarding extortion. Typically, blackmail in California involves things like threatening to accuse someone of a crime, embarrass or disgrace someone, or reveal a secret about someone.
  • Kansas treats blackmail as a crime against a person instead of a theft. Actions that fall under the definition of blackmail include exposing harmful or embarrassing information about someone to gain something of value or force someone to do something they’re reluctant to do.
  • North Carolina views blackmail, extortion, and bribery as three separate crimes. Blackmail is charged as a Class 1 misdemeanor, extortion as a Class F felony, and bribery as a Class F felony. As a result, blackmail is considered a less serious crime than extortion or bribery.

Federal Blackmail Law

A report published in 2020 by the American Bar Association found that federal cases of blackmail and extortion were on the rise. Under federal law, both blackmail and extortion are federal crimes that can lead to a prison sentence, a fine or both.

Regarding blackmail, federal law says that if you threaten to report someone for breaking federal law and demand something of value for staying quiet about it, you could be charged with blackmail. If you’re convicted of a federal blackmail charge, you face up to one year in prison, up to a $100,000 fine, or both.

The Role of Technology in Modern Blackmail

Technology has opened up new avenues for blackmailers.

For instance, social media and dating apps have made it easier to carry out blackmail, allowing a blackmailer to instantly spread rumors or other harmful information about a blackmail victim. Furthermore, artificial intelligence has enabled blackmailers to create phony photos, “deepfake” videos and other content that might falsely put a blackmail victim in a bad light.

Then there’s something known as digital extortion. Typically, digital extortion involves persuading someone to come up with money or something else of value to regain access to digital assets that have been swiped. These stolen assets might be document files or database files, for example.

“Digital extortion is one of the most lucrative ways cybercriminals can profit in today’s threat landscape. Many [people] have fallen victim to this particular scheme and been bilked of their money — from ordinary users to big enterprises,” says TrendMicro, a developer of security software.

Cyber Blackmail

Any discussion about blackmail and technology must include cyber blackmail. Cyber blackmail falls into the digital extortion category.

NordVPN, a provider of virtual private network software, says cyber blackmail (or extortion) involves hackers trying to convince, trick or bully a victim into turning over money or confidential information, or both. Hackers might carry out cyber blackmail through methods such as phishing emails and ransomware attacks. If a hacker succeeds in committing cyber blackmail, the result could be a data breach, financial losses, identity theft, or cyber espionage, says NordVPN.

Other experts put social media blackmail and other forms of electronic blackmail in the bucket of cyber blackmail.

Reporting Blackmail Incidents

If you’re being blackmailed, it’s crucial to call 911 if you believe your life is in danger. Otherwise, contact a local law enforcement agency or the FBI to report that you have been blackmailed or are being blackmailed. The FBI accepts blackmail reports over the phone or online.

Has the blackmail happened on a social media platform or dating app? If so, report the incident to that platform or app. You might consider reaching out to the Revenge Porn Helpline or the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative if you’ve been the victim of sex-related blackmail, such as “revenge porn.”

To help recover from a blackmail incident, encourage a federal or local prosecutor to pursue criminal charges. Or you might consider filing a lawsuit against the perpetrator. Depending on the type of blackmail, you also might want to seek help from a therapist.

In addition, you might look into getting advice from an attorney who’s familiar with blackmail laws.

Protecting Yourself Against Blackmail

How do you protect yourself from winding up being a blackmail victim? Here are seven tips:

  1. Keep your social media accounts private.
  2. Regularly check the security settings on your social media accounts.
  3. Be careful about sharing personal information on social media.
  4. Be cautious about clicking on links in emails and text messages.
  5. Regularly update the security software and operating system on your electronic devices.
  6. Set up two-factor authentication for verification of your online identity.
  7. Create hard-to-guess passwords for online accounts.

Notable Blackmail Cases

Over the years, a number of notable blackmail cases have arisen. Among them are:

  • In 1998, Autumn Jackson claimed she was actor and comedian Bill Cosby’s illegitimate daughter. Jackson threatened to leak her story to the news media unless Cosby paid her $40 million, according to Business Insider. But instead of receiving millions of dollars, Jackson received a five-year prison sentence.
  • Marc Lewis Gittleman stole a wedding photo of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes in 2006, then demanded $1.3 million for its return, says Business Insider. Gittleman eventually was sentenced to two years’ probation. He took his own life in 2009.
  • In 2009, late-night talk show host David Letterman informed the world that he was being blackmailed over affairs he’d had with female employees of his show, according to Screen Rant. The blackmailer, Robert Halderman, threatened to provide details about the affairs in a book and screenplay unless Letterman paid $2 million. Letterman took his case to local prosecutors. In the end, Halderman pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree grand larceny. He was sentenced to six months in jail, five years’ probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
  • In 2012, lawyers for singer and actress Jennifer Lopez sued Hakob Manoukian, her former driver, over an alleged blackmail plot, according to NickiSwift.com. He had threatened to disclose sensitive information that he’d overheard as her chauffeur unless he received a $2.8 million payment. Lopez’s attorneys and Manoukian’s attorneys exchanged lawsuits, and the case ended with an out-of-court settlement.

Defenses Against Blackmail Charges

Depending on the state where the blackmail charges are filed, defenses may vary.

In Texas, for instance, a defendant in a blackmail case must show that the alleged blackmail attempt or action wasn’t actually meant to result in threats being carried out. In addition, the defendant must prove the alleged attempt or action was legitimate and not designed to gain money or something else of value.

Other defenses might include:

  • Inadequate evidence
  • Lack of acceptable evidence
  • Drunkenness at the time of the alleged attempt or action
  • Lack of mental capacity to commit blackmail
  • Pressure from someone else to engage in blackmail
  • No actual threat to the alleged victim

If you’re facing a blackmail charge, it’s critical to enlist the help of a qualified attorney to defend you in court and perhaps even get the case dismissed if there’s a solid defense.

FAQs About Blackmail

How Do Courts Determine the Severity of Blackmail Charges?

Among the factors that determine the severity of blackmail charges are the intent, the level of threats, the amount of fear caused, and the value of money or other items of value being sought by the alleged blackmailer.

Can Blackmail Charges Be Dropped or Reduced?

If there’s a lack of sufficient evidence in a blackmail case, a defense attorney may be able to persuade a court to reduce or even drop the charges.

What Types of Blackmail Are Considered Illegal?

All types of blackmail are considered illegal. In fact, blackmail is a crime regardless of whether the information is true or false, according to the Justia legal website. The key element of the crime is the blackmailer’s intent to gain money, property or services by threatening to expose harmful information about the victim.

What Actions Can Law Enforcement Take in Cases of Blackmail?

An alleged blackmailer might be arrested and questioned by law enforcement officers, and then  charged with a crime by prosecutors. A judge might issue a restraining order against the alleged blackmailer if that person physically hurt the victim or threatened the victim’s safety.

How Do You Establish Evidence to Prove a Blackmail Incident?

Evidence in a blackmail case might include emails, social media posts, text messages, recorded conversations, letters or notes, as well as testimony from the victim or witnesses. A core piece of evidence is proof that the alleged blackmailer intended to threaten the victim to obtain money or something else of value that the victim otherwise would not have handed over.

Ben Michael

Ben has vast experience in defending criminal cases ranging from DWIs to assault, drug possession, and many more. He has countless criminal charges dismissed and pled down. Among many other awards, one of the Top 10 Criminal Defense Attorneys in Texas and winner of Top 40 under 40.

Scroll to Top