Responding to blackmail if you are not Jeff Bezos

13 February 2019

The Jeff Bezos blackmail story has captured attention for a number of reasons. Not only did Mr Bezos, the world’s richest man, bravely call out his blackmailer in an attempt to neuter embarrassing information with which he was being threatened, he also exposed what he considered a politically motivated vendetta, thereby creating a diversion from the awkward images at the heart of the story.

Of course not all victims of blackmail can adopt such a bold and imaginative strategy.

For many blackmail recipients, the release of the hitherto private information would end their career, relationship or reputation – the essence of blackmailer’s leverage.

In our experience, such information usually concerns sexual behaviour – an affair, visits to a prostitute or other more salacious conduct. Interestingly, blackmail was once a weapon used to intimidate gay men when same-sex relationships were illegal. There was then a wave of ‘sex tape’ and ‘topless photo’-type threats – looking to exploit embarrassment rather than illegality. These days we are more likely to see sextortion, revenge porn and sexting blackmail threats. These don’t rely on a national newspaper to publish, but the ease of upload and significant and swift spread of social media mean the damage is considered as catastrophic.  Modern technology and social media have changed the blackmail landscape.

If the victim stands to lose face among family, friends, colleagues, bosses, or even risks having breached a regulatory or workplace code or broken the law in the act, the blackmailer will see the potential. It goes without saying that the more financially successful or famous the victim, the more the blackmailer has to play with. 

So how do you respond if you are subject to blackmail but are not Amazon’s CEO with unlimited resources?

It may feel like choices are few, but we have secured effective options ranging from informed decisions to engage with the demand (for example, a jilted lover may not realise that the ultimatum they are making amounts to blackmail or the offence of revenge porn) through to reporting to law enforcement to commence criminal proceedings.

Blackmail is an offence under section 21 of the Theft Act 1968. The maximum penalty is 14 years - while the term extortion is used interchangeably, there is no free standing offence of extortion in England & Wales.

Where the blackmailer’s identity is unknown or uncorroborated, the police may still be able to assist, but in some cases, a private investigator or forensic expert may offer the best hope of identifying the culprit. Depending on the circumstances, a  victim of blackmail may be afforded anonymity in subsequent trial or prosecution.

Civil injunctions are also available but are an expensive alternative. Recent media reports have demonstrated that they run the risk of piquing public interest, which exacerbates the problem.

Other solutions might include seeking to remove damaging information uploaded to social media under the “right to be forgotten” principle, but this can be time consuming and expensive. However the emerging range of services in this area is making the process affordable for most, even if it is a matter of only getting the information bumped to the second page of Google which most of us ignore.  For this you need reams of alternative content to upload for a chance of success.

The appropriate response to a blackmail threat will depend on the nature of the blackmail, the circumstances of the blackmailer and the position of the blackmail recipient. The strategy is usually calculated to try and reduce the risk of the blackmail menace being delivered (and harmful information being released) and/or repeated.

It is rare that the information the blackmailer is seeking to leverage concerns criminal conduct. However, it is important to be aware that it could be perverting the course of justice, an equally serious offence, to pay off a blackmailer in order to prevent them reporting an offence.

Most blackmail falls into the Bezos category – information about impropriety, a questionable moral compass or the usual dirty laundry that none of us would want aired. The images his perpetrators were threatening to expose certainly did not amount to a crime.

Given the benefit of his resources and access to highly skilled advisors, Bezos had significant latitude in the way that he was able to respond to the threats. Nevertheless, he will no doubt give courage to other subjects of blackmail, empowering them to respond in increasingly creative ways so that blackmail does not pay.

Further information

If you are the victim of sextortion you should seek legal advice at the earliest opportunity. We have assisted clients in resolving matters without the need to go to the police; where a report is necessary, we will ensure that you have all the information you need to guide you through the process.

Should you have any questions about sextortion, please contact a member of our Criminal Law team.

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We welcome views and opinions about the issues raised in this blog. Should you require specific advice in relation to personal circumstances, please use the form on the contact page.

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