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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Blackmail is the crime of threatening to reveal substantially true information about a person to the public, a family member, or associates unless a demand made upon the victim is met. This information is usually of an embarrassing, socially damaging, and/or criminally-incriminating nature. As the information is substantially true, the act of revealing the information may not be criminal in its own right nor amount to a civil law defamation; the crime is making demands in exchange for withholding it. English Law creates a much broader definition of blackmail, covering any unwarranted demands with menaces, whether involving revealing information or not.

Blackmail is similar to extortion. The difference is that extortion involves an underlying, independent criminal act, while blackmail does not.

The word is variously derived from the word for tribute (in modern terms, protection racket) paid by English and Scottish border dwellers to Border Reivers in return for immunity from raids and other harassment. This tribute was paid in goods or labour (reditus nigri, or "blackmail"): the opposite is blanche firmes or reditus albi, or "white rent" (denoting payment by silver). Alternatively, Mckay derives it from two Scottish Gaelic words blathaich pronounced (the th silent) bld-aich (to protect} and mal (tribute, payment). He notes the practice was common in the Highlands of Scotland as well as the Borders.[1]


English law

Under section21(1) of the Theft Act 1968 of English law, a person commits the offence:

if, with a view to gain for himself or another or with intent to cause loss to another, he makes any unwarranted demand with menaces; and for this purpose a demand with menaces is unwarranted unless the person making it does so in the belief:
(a) that he has reasonable grounds for making the demand; and
(b) that the use of the menaces is a proper means of reinforcing the demand.

The Act uses the word "menaces" which is considered wider in scope than "threat" and involves a warning of any consequences known to be considered unpleasant by the intended victim. This covers the spectrum from actual or threatened violence to the victim or others, through damage to property, to the disclosure of information.

Pretexts for blackmail have included the threat to reveal adultery or criminal acts. But whatever the nature of the menace, it must be direct. Any vague threat to cause "something bad" to happen to some other person, except when certain demands are met, are not applicable under the law.

It is important to note that if the blackmailer did the act (i.e. told the victim's wife that he had committed adultery), it would be perfectly legal. It is only by demanding money not to do the act, that the crime is committed. This is true even if the husband would rather pay the money than have the wife know of the adultery, i.e. does not object to the menace.

Lawful means

Debt collectors have been accused of blackmail, but those pursuing legal debts are generally able to justify their threats of repossession because, even though it may be unpleasant to the victim, this is a legitimate use of civil law remedies.

But there are limits: many jurisdictions do not allow a "claim of right" defense to blackmail (i.e., one cannot use blackmail to collect even a valid debt).

By contrast, those chasing illegal (and thus unenforceable) debts who back up their demands with the threat of bodily injury cannot avail themselves of the same defence. There will also be liability even though the debts are legally owed if the menaces are of a criminal nature, e.g. of an assault or more serious violence or criminal damage occurred.

The maximum sentence under the terms of the Act is fourteen years imprisonment[2]; this reflects the severity of the offense, which in turn, can consequently destroy a person's reputation, personal life and livelihood.

If the elements of blackmail are not made out and the defendant has acquired a vehicle, a charge under s12 Act 1968 may be preferred, see TWOC.

See also


  • Allen, Michael. Textbook on Criminal Law. Oxford University Press: Oxford. (2005) ISBN 0-19-927918-7.
  • Criminal Law Revision Committee. 8th Report. Theft and Related Offences. Cmnd. 2977
  • Griew, Edward. Theft Acts 1968 & 1978, Sweet & Maxwell: London. ISBN 0-421-19960-1
  • Ormerod, David. Smith and Hogan Criminal Law, LexisNexis: London. (2005) ISBN 0-406-97730-5
  • Smith, J. C. Law of Theft, LexisNexis: London. (1997) ISBN 0-406-89545-7
  1. ^ Charles Mckay, Dictionary of Lowland Scots, 1888 (}
  2. ^ s.21 Theft Act 1968 (c. 60)

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010
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From LoveToKnow 1911

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Simple English

Blackmail means threatening to say something bad about someone unless that person pays some money.

If someone has committed a crime, another person might blackmail them. The blackmailer might, for example, say that if the criminal does not give them a large amount of money they will tell the police.

A blackmailer may threaten to say something embarrassing about someone unless they hand over a sum of money. It may be something about a sexual relation they are having that they do not want everyone to know about.

Sometimes a business may blackmail another business. They might threaten to harm that business in some way unless money is paid.

Blackmail is illegal (against the law).


Blackmail started on the borders of England and Scotland. Blackmail was the money left out by landowners in England so that raiders from Scotland did not steal their animals or damage the property.

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