Be­zos used the two terms. What's the big dif­fer­ence?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - Matthew Haag

Jeff Be­zos, the world’s wealth­i­est per­son, re­vealed in a sen­sa­tional blog post Thurs­day that he be­lieved he was the vic­tim of “ex­tor­tion and black­mail” by the com­pany be­hind The Na­tional En­quirer. He ac­cused the com­pany, Amer­i­can Me­dia Inc., of threat­en­ing to re­lease graphic pho­tos of him. Le­gal definitions aside, there is a fool­proof def­i­ni­tion for black­mail and ex­tor­tion, ac­cord­ing to Wil­liam N. Net­tles, the U.S. at­tor­ney in South Carolina from 2010 to 2016. “They are like fancy bul­ly­ing,” Net­tles said.

Ex­tor­tion vs. black­mail

Ex­tor­tion and black­mail are sim­i­lar con­cepts with over­lap­ping definitions. “They are very, very sim­i­lar,” Net­tles said. “You could say that black­mail is a spe­cific sub­set of ex­tor­tion.”

With ex­tor­tion, a per­son makes a threat, of­ten phys­i­cal or de­struc­tive, to ob­tain some­thing or to force some­one to do some­thing. The text­book ex­am­ple is the mafia warn­ing: Pay me money or I will hurt you.

With black­mail, a per­son threat­ens to re­veal em­bar­rass­ing or dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion if a de­mand is not met. That de­mand can be for money or some­thing else of value.

Black­mail first in­volved Scot­tish farm­ers

The word “ex­tort” dates to Mid­dle English, from the Latin word mean­ing to twist. Black­mail first sur­faced in Scot­land in the 1500s, some­times ren­dered “black meal,” to de­scribe a pay­ment farm­ers and prop­erty own­ers would give plun­der­ers to avoid hav­ing their land dam­aged. The word be­came a com­bi­na­tion of black money (“black”) and rent (“meal”).

In early Scot­tish law, both sides of a black­mail scheme were con­sid­ered crim­i­nals, even those we would now con­sider vic­tims. “The rea­son the givers are li­able is be­cause they main­tain the thieves,” ac­cord­ing to “The Laws and Cus­tomes of Scot­land,” pub­lished in the 17th cen­tury.

In the United States, the fed­eral govern­ment and all 50 states have crim­i­nal statutes cov­er­ing ex­tor­tion and black­mail. Such cases can be­come fed­eral crimes if they in­volve “in­ter­state com­merce,” which can be as sim­ple as email­ing a threat from one state to an­other.

Mod­ern black­mail and ex­tor­tion

Ex­tor­tion cases ap­pear all over the world.

`In China, govern­ment of­fi­cials have been tar­geted, re­ceiv­ing pho­tos of their sor­did be­hav­ior in the mail with a threat that the im­ages will go pub­lic if money is not paid.

There have been high-pro­file schemes in the United States, in­clud­ing one tar­get­ing David Let­ter­man, for­mer host of “The Late Show” on CBS.

Like Be­zos, he went pub­lic with the scheme with­out ca­pit­u­lat­ing to the de­mands.

Let­ter­man told his au­di­ence dur­ing a show in Oc­to­ber 2009 that a man, later iden­ti­fied as a CBS pro­ducer, wanted $2 mil­lion to not re­veal pub­licly that Let­ter­man had been in sex­ual re­la­tion­ships with women who worked on his show.

The pro­ducer, Robert Hal­der­man, pleaded guilty to lar­ceny, a charge that cov­ers black­mail in New York.

Was Be­zos a vic­tim?

“There is def­i­nitely a prima fa­cie case to be made that Jeff Be­zos was be­ing ex­torted by Na­tional En­quirer,” said Net­tles, the for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney.

Net­tles said that Be­zos must have viewed the ac­tions by The En­quirer and its par­ent com­pany as a threat. “Jeff Be­zos ex­posed him­self by do­ing this,” he said.

He added: “What he did was, he took the sting out of the pic­tures.”

NICK COTE/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Jeff Be­zos, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ama­zon, re­vealed that he be­lieved he was the vic­tim of “ex­tor­tion and black­mail” by the com­pany be­hind The Na­tional En­quirer.

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