When a person has information or knows a secret about someone else, he or she may threaten to share that information if the person, or victim, does not meet certain demands that are made. This is called blackmail and it is a crime.
The information held by the blackmailer must be substantially true and pertain to the victim, the public, a family member of the victim, or associates of the victim. The information that the blackmailer has is typically either embarrassing or socially damaging in nature. Because the information is substantially true, revealing the information is not necessarily criminal. It might not even amount to civil law defamation. Holding the information becomes a crime when there are demands made to withhold the information.
Blackmail is a very similar crime to extortion. The biggest difference between the two crimes is that extortion involves an underlying, independent criminal act. Blackmail, however, does not require a criminal act to be the underlying cause of the demands.
Blackmail itself is derived from a word meaning “tribute” (better known now as protection money) that was paid by English and Scottish border dwellers to Border Reivers, or Free-Booters, in exchange for immunity from raids and other forms of harassment. The tribute was paid in goods or labor (“reditus nigri” or “blackmail”). The opposite of “blackmail” is blanche firmers or reditus albi, or “white rent.” White rent was paid in silver as opposed to labor. br>
Over the years, many a debt collector has been accused of blackmail; however, those who are pursuing legal debts are typically able to justify their threats of repossession. These threats are justified because, even though it is unpleasant to the “victim,” repossession is a legitimate use of civil law remedies.