Blackmail is a criminal act of coercion using a threat.

As a criminal offence, blackmail is defined in various ways in common law jurisdictions. In the United States, blackmail is generally defined as a crime of information, involving a threat to do something that would cause a person to suffer embarrassment or financial loss.[1] By contrast, in the Commonwealth its definition is wider: for example the laws of England and Wales and Northern Ireland state that:

A person is guilty of blackmail 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...[2][3]

In popular culture, 'blackmail' involves a threat to reveal or publicize either substantially true or false information about a person or people unless certain demands are met. It is often damaging information, and it may be revealed to family members or associates rather than to the general public.

Acts of blackmail can also involve using threats of physical, mental or emotional harm, or of criminal prosecution, against the victim or someone close to the victim.[4][5] It is normally carried out for personal gain, most commonly of position, money, or property.[4][6][7][8]

Blackmail may also be considered a form of extortion.[4] Although the two are generally synonymous, extortion is the taking of personal property by threat of future harm.[9] Blackmail is the use of threat to prevent another from engaging in a lawful occupation and writing libelous letters or letters that provoke a breach of the peace, as well as use of intimidation for purposes of collecting an unpaid debt.[10]

In many jurisdictions, blackmail is a statutory offense, often criminal, carrying punitive sanctions for convicted perpetrators. Blackmail is the name of a statutory offense in the United States, England and Wales, and Australia,[11] and has been used as a convenient way of referring to certain other offenses, but was not a term used in English law until 1968.[12]

Blackmail was originally a term from the Scottish Borders meaning payments rendered in exchange for protection from thieves and marauders.[6][10][13] The "mail" part of blackmail derives from Middle English male meaning "rent or tribute".[14] This tribute (male or reditus) was paid in goods or labour ("nigri"); hence reditus nigri, or "blackmail".


Blackmail note intended for the Jewish Capon-Minerbo family in hiding during the Axis occupation of Greece
This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources in this section. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (March 2023) (Learn how and when to remove this message)

The word blackmail is variously derived from the word for mailing (in modern terms, protection racket) paid by English and Scottish border dwellers to Border Reivers in return for immunity from raids and other harassment. The "mail" part of blackmail derives from Middle English male, "rent, tribute".[14] 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). An alternative version is that rents in the Scottish Borders were often paid in produce of the land, called "greenmail"[citation needed] ('green rent'), suggesting "blackmail" as a counterpart paid perforce to the reivers. Alternatively, Mackay[obsolete source] derives it from two Scottish Gaelic words blathaich pronounced (the th silent) bla-ich (to protect) and mal (tribute, payment), cf. buttock mail. He notes that the practice was common in the Scottish Highlands as well as the Borders.[15] In the Irish language, the term cíos dubh, meaning "black rent", was used for similar exactions.

Objections to criminalization

Some scholars have argued that blackmail should not be a crime.[16][17][18][19] Objections to the criminalization of blackmail often rest on what legal scholars call "the paradox of blackmail": it takes two separate actions that, in many cases, people are legally and morally entitled to do, and criminalizes them if done together. One American legal scholar uses the example of a person who threatens to expose a criminal act unless he is paid money. The person has committed the crime of blackmail, even though he separately has the legal right both to threaten to expose a crime and to request money from a person.[20]

Sextortion (webcam blackmail)

Sextortion the rise of social media blackmail has been observed, which is popular among individuals deemed to hold power or authority in fields like politics, education, and the workplace. Sextortion, constituting a form of blackmail, is employed to exploit this power and coerce victims into providing sexual favors or explicit images in exchange for desired outcomes such as job security or academic advancement. A common instance of this is webcam blackmail/ Snapchat[21]/ Whatsapp and other Social media platforms.

"Criminals might befriend victims online by using a fake identity and then persuade them to perform sexual acts in front of their webcam, often by using an attractive woman to entice the victim to participate. These women may have been coerced into these actions using financial incentives or threats." As reported by the NCA (National Crime Agency), both men and women can be victims of this crime. This crime can be carried out by either crime groups or individuals.[22]


Dubai Police in the UAE stated that there have been 2,606 crimes that involve blackmail in the past three years.[when?] The reason it is so easy to commit these crimes online is the anonymity the internet gives. It is far easier to commit crimes with anonymity. The ability to be anonymous encourages antisocial tendencies and the ability to spread fake news.[23] The frequency of cybercrime is astonishing. In 2023 alone, an estimated 33 billion accounts are expected to be breached,[24] translating to approximately 2,328 cybercrimes per day or 97 victims every hour. This indicates that cybercriminals are relentless in their pursuit of targets. As of 2007, hacker attacks occurred every 39 seconds on average.[24]

See also

In film


  1. ^ Blackmail Law: Justicia
  2. ^ Section 21(1) Theft Act 1968
  3. ^ Section 20(1) Theft Act (Northern Ireland) 1969
  4. ^ a b c Merriam-Webster's dictionary of law. Merriam-Webster. 1996. p. 53. ISBN 978-0-87779-604-6. Retrieved 23 May 2011.
  5. ^ The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 2010.
  6. ^ a b "Blackmail". Merriam-Webster. Archived from the original on 21 October 2017. Retrieved 23 May 2011.
  7. ^ Burton's Legal Thesaurus. McGraw-Hill Professional. 2006. p. 233. ISBN 978-0-07-147262-3. Retrieved 23 May 2011.
  8. ^ The encyclopedia of American law enforcement. Infobase Publishing. 2007. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-8160-6290-4. Retrieved 23 May 2011.
  9. ^ Frank Schmalleger; Daniel E. Hall; John J. Dolatowski (2009). Criminal Law Today (4th ed.). Prentice Hall. pp. 271–272. ISBN 978-0-13-504261-8.
  10. ^ a b West's encyclopedia of American law, Volume 2. West Pub. Co. 1998. pp. 569 pages. ISBN 978-0-314-20155-3. Retrieved 23 May 2011.
  11. ^ "Legislation View Page". Archived from the original on 19 September 2016. Retrieved 18 September 2016.
  12. ^ Griew, Edward. The Theft Acts 1968 & 1978, Sweet & Maxwell: London. Fifth Edition, paperback, ISBN 0-421-35310-4, paragraph 12-01 at page 183
  13. ^ "Dictionary of the Scots Language:: SND :: black mail". Archived from the original on 15 August 2020. Retrieved 19 June 2020.
  14. ^ a b Maeve Maddox (10 May 2011). "The Difference Between Extortion and Blackmail". Archived from the original on 13 July 2011. Retrieved 18 July 2011.
  15. ^ Mackay, Charles; Ramsay, Allan; May, G. (1888). "Black-mail". A dictionary of Lowland Scotch, with an introductory chapter on the poetry, humour, and literary history of the Scottish language and an appendix of Scottish proverbs. London: Whittaker. pp. 10–12.
  16. ^ Lindgren (1984), p. 670: "Most crimes do not need theories to explain why the behavior is criminal. The wrongdoing is self-evident. But blackmail is unique among major crimes: no one has yet figured out why it ought to be illegal."
  17. ^ Block, Walter, "Blackmail as a Victimless Crime Archived 8 August 2017 at the Wayback Machine," with Robert McGee, Bracton Law Journal, Vol. 31, pp. 24–28 (1999)
  18. ^ Block, Walter, "Blackmailing for Mutual Good: A Reply to Russell Hardin Archived 19 March 2011 at the Wayback Machine," Vermont Law Review, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 121–141 (1999)
  19. ^ Walter Block, N. Stephan Kinsella and Hans-Hermann Hoppe (July 2000), "The Second Paradox of Blackmail", Business Ethics Quarterly, 10 (3): 593–622, doi:10.2307/3857894, JSTOR 3857894, S2CID 5684396
  20. ^ Lindgren (1984), pp. 670–71.
  21. ^ Sextortion (webcam blackmail). (n.d.). In Blackmail. Retrieved August 8, 2023, from Blackmail (Snapchat blackmail)
  22. ^ "Sextortion (webcam blackmail) - National Crime Agency". 3 May 2023. Archived from the original on 21 February 2020. Retrieved 21 February 2020.
  23. ^ "The internet really can bring out the worst in people". The National. 31 March 2019. Archived from the original on 12 April 2019. Retrieved 28 April 2019.
  24. ^ a b "Study: Hackers Attack Every 39 Seconds". University of Maryland. 9 February 2007.