Criminology Extortion
Atanas Rusev
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0282


Extortion is a predatory crime similar to other practices such as blackmail, bribery, coercion, and robbery. Extortion practices have been classified according to their degree of complexity and the professional occupation of the perpetrator. Simplest forms are related to episodic incidents, where a single offender receives a one-time benefit from one victim. Systematic extortion is usually perpetrated by organized crime groups that exact payments from multiple victims. Such well-rooted extortion practices over a certain territory have long been associated with Mafia-type organizations and denoted as protection racketeering. The scholarly debate on the genesis and nature of Mafia extortion practices continues to this date. While one of the influential theories contends that racketeering is an economic activity—provision of (extralegal) protection services—others postulate that it is rather an imposition of illegal taxation by quasi-political groups. Some scholars have also focused on “extortion under the color of office,” or, in other words, extortion perpetrated by public servants or politicians in their official capacity. However, the biggest challenge in conceptualizing and studying extortion perpetrated by public officials remains its distinction from bribery. Although in theory the two crimes can be distinguished by the degree of coercion involved in the crime and the role (or modus operandi) of public officials in the bribery and extortive scheme, it appears that in practice it is usually not possible to establish a difference.

General Overviews

During the last fifty years extortion has attracted the attention of many scholars from various areas of social sciences—criminology, economics, law, political sciences, and sociology. The first important contributions in the definition and distinction of extortion from other crimes came from the economic theory. Schelling 1971 and Reuter 1987 were some of the first works to analyze the underpinnings of extortion from an economic point of view, drawing on the rational choice theory (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Criminology article “Rational Choice Theories)” and to point out its true nature as provision of extralegal protection. Another influential economic theory, which is widely applied in conceptualizing and analyzing extortion, is game theory. Best 1982 is among the pioneering works in the application of this theory to the extortion phenomenon. The definitions of extortion are presented in greater detail in the section Definitions. The major contributions to the conceptualization of the genesis and nature of extortion happened during the 1990s. Perhaps the most influential was the seminal work Gambetta 1996, on the Sicilian Mafia, which puts forward the widely recognized property rights theory of extortion perpetrated as organized crime. The theory was subsequently applied to a number of different national and historical contexts. Extortion as organized crime in the different countries is discussed in greater detail in the section Manifestations of Extortion Racketeering around the World. Paoli 2008 and Lampe 2016 provide critical assessments of the suggested theoretical approaches and conceptualizations of extortion as organized crime. A more in-depth and comprehensive review of the existing theoretical perspectives on extortion and organized crime is presented in Extortion as Organized Crime. Far fewer researchers have focused on extortion as crime committed by public officials; Lindgren 1993 is a pivotal contribution in this field. Another important work on the genesis and nature of political extortion is McChesney 1997. Further review on the research on public officials’ extortion is available in the section Extortion as Crime Committed by Public Officials. The last fifteen years have witnessed a resurgent interest in the extortion phenomenon, whereby researchers focused on specific aspects such as Modus Operandi of Extortionists, Vulnerability to Extortion, Resistance to Extortion, and Policies and Measures to Fight Extortion. Elsenbroich, et al. 2016 and Transcrime 2009 can be used as introductions to these topics.

  • Best, Joel. 1982. Crime as strategic interaction. Urban Life 11.1: 107–128.

    DOI: 10.1177/089124168201100105

    One of the first and foundational papers on extortion that utilizes game theory to analyze the phenomenon and distinguish it from other predatory crimes. Subsequently, numerous other scholars adopted game theory approach to study various aspects of extortion. The work also contributes to distinguishing extortion from other similar crimes and discusses what makes businesses vulnerable to extortion.

  • Elsenbroich, Corinna, David Anzola, and Nigel Gilbert, eds. 2016. Social dimensions of organised crime. Computational Social Sciences. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-45169-5

    This edited volume contains some of the most recent works on various aspects of extortion—from analysis of existing legal and policy approaches to assessing existing social measures. Some of the chapters also cover methods of extortion applied by Mafia, extortion dynamics and analysis of situational and structural characteristics in specific industries and regions that make them susceptible to extortion.

  • Gambetta, Diego. 1996. The Sicilian Mafia: The business of private protection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Diego Gambetta’s seminal book offers one of the most appealing and widely implemented theories on the genesis and nature of extortion as organized crime. The so called “property rights theory” remains the most often replicated, tested, and contested approach for analyzing Mafia groups and extortion around the world until the present.

  • Lampe, Klaus von. 2016. Organized crime?: Analyzing illegal activities, criminal structures and extra-legal governance. London: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781506305110

    Provides a critical overview of existing research on extralegal governance and the related findings and implications, and it is a good starting point for anyone who would like to get familiar with the topic of extortion.

  • Lindgren, James. 1993. The theory, history, and practice of the bribery-extortion distinction. University of Pennsylvania Law Review 141.5: 1695–1740.

    DOI: 10.2307/3312572

    One of the pioneering and rare contributions to the research on extortion as crime perpetrated by public officials or the so called “extortion under the color of office.” Lindgren suggests a well-grounded definition that helps distinguish the closely related crimes of extortion and bribery, while at the same time demonstrating how hard it is to apply and justify such a distinction in practice.

  • McChesney, Fred. 1997. Money for nothing?: Politicians, rent extraction, and political extortion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Presents one of the widely acknowledged contributions to the research on extortion perpetrated by public officials. Building on the rent-seeking theory, McChesney introduces and defines the notion of rent extraction as a typical extortionate tactic of politicians who abuse their vested powers to coerce businesses and thus obtain undue benefits.

  • Paoli, Letizia. 2008. Mafia brotherhoods: Organized crime, Italian style. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195157246.001.0001

    Takes stock of the existing conceptualizations about the Italian Mafia including the most prominent theories about protection racketeering and extortion and critically reviews them. The analysis advances one of the most well-grounded criticisms of Gambetta’s property rights theory as explanation of the genesis and nature of Mafia extortion.

  • Reuter, Peter. 1987. “Racketeering in legitimate industries. A study in the economics of intimidation.” Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation.

    Reuter was one of the first and most renowned proponents for the application of the economic perspective for the understanding of extortion as organized crime. The paper also discusses the structural characteristics of specific economic sectors in the United States in the 1980s, which makes them vulnerable to extortion.

  • Schelling, Thomas C. 1971. What is the business of organized crime? The American Scholar 40.4: 643–652.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.2007.54.1.23

    This seminal paper remains the most often cited article on extortion. Drawing on the rational choice approach developed within the economic theory, Schelling was the first to point out that it is the provision of extralegal governance that is the core and defining activity of organized crime.

  • Transcrime. 2009. Study on extortion racketeering the need for an instrument to combat activities of organised crime. Study Financed by the European Commission – DG JLS. Milano, Trento.

    Provides a comprehensive overview of extortion practices in European (EU) countries. Drawing both on extensive literature overview and primary data collection the study presents a detailed stock on existing definitions, modalities, legal and policy measures against extortion. It also discusses topics such as profile of perpetrators and vulnerability characteristics of victims.

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