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What Is the Difference Between Extortion and Blackmail?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Apr 08, 2024

The terms “extortion” and “blackmail” are often used interchangeably. In California, they are treated as the same offense defined by Penal Code 518 PC and punished similarly. 

However, there are some nuanced differences between these two types of acts, even though the penalties for extortion and blackmail are essentially the same. 

The best way to consider the difference is that extortion can threaten harm by various means, while blackmail threatens harm primarily by releasing sensitive information

What Is the Difference Between Extortion and Blackmail?
PC 518 extortion and blackmail are treated as the same offense and punished similarly.

Extortion is described as the use of coercion to obtain money, goods, or services from an individual. The coercion could be violence, the threat of violence, or the destruction of property. Threatened refusal to testify can also be classified as coercion.

Blackmail, in contrast, can be described as obtaining money, goods, or services from an individual by threatening to reveal embarrassing, incriminating, or socially damaging information.

Notably, blackmail is a crime regardless of the validity of the information. Even if you are threatening to reveal actual criminal activity, it is still blackmailing and illegal.

PC 518 says, “(a) Extortion is obtaining property or other consideration from another, with his or her consent, or obtaining an official act of a public officer, induced by a wrongful use of force or fear, or under color of official right.

(b) For purposes of this chapter, “consideration” means anything of value, including sexual conduct as defined in subdivision (b) of Section 311.3 or an image of an intimate body part as defined in subparagraph (C) of paragraph (4) of subdivision (j) of Section 647.

(c) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), this section does not apply to a person under 18 years of age who has obtained consideration consisting of sexual conduct or an image of an intimate body part.

What is California Penal Code 518 PC?

PC 518 broadly defines extortion as obtaining property or other consideration from someone with their consent or obtaining an official act of a public officer induced by a wrongful use of force or fear or under the color of official right. 

This means that using threats or coercion to obtain money or property from another person can be considered extortion. This also includes situations where a public official is coerced into performing an official act.

For purposes of this law, a “consideration” can be anything of perceived value, including money, a favor, a sexual act, or even a promise to do or not to do something. 

The critical element is that the person making the demand is doing so to obtain something of value from the victim and that the victim is under threat of harm if they do not give it.

Differentiating Between Extortion and Blackmail

While extortion and blackmail are very similar (and blackmail is technically a form of extortion), the primary difference lies in the penalty for noncompliance. 

Extortion typically involves an overt act of harm or damage, while blackmail deals with the release of harmful information. Attempted extortion is a separate crime prosecuted under Penal Code 524 PC.


Extortion involves compelling another individual to hand over money or property, or to perform an action against their will through the use of force or threats. This can include:

  • Threats of violence,
  • Damaging someone's reputation,
  • Revealing confidential information, etc. 

The essence of extortion is coercion, the act of making someone do something they wouldn't normally do under fear of consequences. 

Extortion is a standard action within organized crime or within “mob”-controlled areas, where perhaps a member of the organization offers “protection” to local business owners for a weekly fee—meaning, of course, they will vandalize the business if the owner does not pay.


You can be convicted of extortion even if you do not actually injure, use force against that person, expose their secret, etc. All that matters is that you threatened to do so.

The threat must be the primary reason that the other person consented. If the person or government officials consented for other controlling reasons, you are not guilty of extortion.

EXAMPLE: Maria, who runs a popular café in a bustling neighborhood. One day, she receives an unexpected visit from John, who claims to influence the local business inspection processes. John informs Maria that he knows of several infractions at her café, which, although true, are generally overlooked during routine inspections. 

John says unless she pays him $10,000, he will ensure that these infractions are discovered in the next inspection, potentially leading to hefty fines or even temporary closure of her café. This is a form of extortion.


Blackmail is a specific form of extortion that involves threats to reveal potentially damaging information about someone unless a demand, usually for money or another form of payment, is met. 

Unlike general extortion, which can involve a broader range of threats, blackmail is more narrowly focused on leveraging secrets or sensitive information.

EXAMPLE: Sarah has been having an extramarital affair with a coworker. One day, Sarah receives a letter from an anonymous sender claiming to have evidence of her infidelity. The letter demands that she pay $5,000, or the information will be revealed to her husband. This is a typical example of blackmail.

What are Related Laws?

Several California laws are related to Penal Code 518 extortion and blackmail, such as the following:

•    Penal Code 524 PC—attempted extortion. This statute makes it a crime to attempt to extort property or money from someone using threats.
•    Penal Code 522 PC—extortion by signature.  This statute makes it a crime to commit extortion by means of obtaining a signature.
•    Penal Code 523 PC—extortion by threatening letter. This statute makes committing extortion by sending a threatening letter is a crime.
•    Penal Code 526 PC—extortion by fake court order. This statute makes it a crime to commit extortion by means of a fake court order.

What are the Penalties for Extortion or Blackmail?

Since Californian law views extortion and blackmail as part of the same crime family, they are punished identically. A violation of PC 518 is a felony offense. However, the specific charge will depend on whether the extortion or blackmail was successful.

A successful act of blackmail or extortion (meaning the victim complied with the demand) is always charged as a felony. If convicted, you could face:

  • Up to $10,000 in fines and
  • Up to four years in prison.

Attempted blackmail or extortion (meaning the threat was made, but the victim did not comply) is a “wobbler offense,” charged under Penal Code 524 PC. 

This means it can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances. If charged as a felony, the penalties are the same as a successful extortion. If charged as a misdemeanor, you could face up to a year in jail if convicted.

Contact our California criminal defense lawyers for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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