What is Extortion?
According to prominent New Jersey criminal defense attorneys, Clark & Clark:
"Extortion is different from other theft crimes because the victim consents out of fear of being harmed or damaged in some way so nothing is technically stolen. However, it is illegal to threaten, blackmail, or otherwise coerce another person into paying money, giving up property, or committing any act against their will."
A growing trend in how cease and desist order letters are sent to alleged Internet copyright infringers is often referred to by many consumers and attorneys as "Legalized Extortion." This is due to the increasing number of companies now sending cease and desist orders that include a "Settlement Demand Letter" to intimidate people into paying money that they may not even owe to the company or person who sent the demand letter.
Differences Between Cease & Desist Order and Settlement Demand Letter
A cease and desist order is a demand to stop doing something -- a settlement demand letter is a demand for immediate payment under the threat that if you do not accept a "settlement offer" you will be sued.
In simplest terms, a settlement demand letter is an offer to enter into an agreement with someone else that if you pay them a specified amount of money, they will forfeit any legal rights that they may have to sue you for the alleged civil offense.
Many companies, including the Associated Press (AP) and Getty Images, now bypass the civilized purpose of sending a cease and desist warning (to right a wrong) and aggressively seek out people to demand money from to scare them into paying what is often unreasonable punitive sums of money.
Legal Demands vs. Extortion Letters
It is important to understand the potential legal wrongdoing here; the extortion-like tactics:
- It is perfectly legal to send a cease and desist letter to someone who is knowingly or unknowingly violating copyright laws;
- It is perfectly legal to send a settlement demand letter to someone who owes you something;
- It is not legal to scare someone into paying something that they do not owe to the person or company sending the demand letter.
The real legal question you need to answer before paying on any settlement demand letter is simple to ask, but not so simple to answer: "Do you owe the money being demanded, and if you do, is the amount offered in the settlement a reasonable sum you should pay?"