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Welcome to the Internet, where people are the worst and want money for nothing:

Alice is a normal citizen of New York with an e-mail address. She receives an E-mail from Bob, a New York State Citizen, in which he claims to have sexually incriminating material collected by tapping into Alice's webcam. Bob demands money via Bitcoin to not share the material with the public. Alice does not own a Webcam so knows that such material doesn't exist, but feels annoyed and informs the police, and does also not pay.

Now, in real life, we know that it is nigh impossible to trace the e-mail back to Bob, but for the exercise, assume that somehow the police manage to identify Bob based on his Bitcoin wallet into which some person they can not identify has paid. Still, they bring it to the prosecution. Bob is found to never had the material they claimed to own for any of the people he sent such mail to.

New York State Prosecutor Charles wants to bring suit but then pauses: The behavior of Bob appears to be extortion, but does this fit the letter of the law? It is clearly not NYPC § 135.60, as no physical force is there, but maybe NYPC § 155.05(2)(e) could work.

So Charles brings the suit under NYPC $ 155.05(2)(e)(v), because he believes that the unidentified person has been acting out of fear to be publically humiliated...

Now, the question is: Is that actually the right section or might the whole case be in the wrong venue (e.g. belonging to federal court as wire fraud)?

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  • I get these emails all the time, and I ignore them (among other reasons) because typically the scammers are not using their own email address and as you suggest it is impossible to track the email back to a specific person (who is likely to not be resident in the US anyway). It may be possible to track the BitCoin transaction, but a "smart" criminal will wash the transaction as a first step to remain anonymous.
    – Peter M
    Jun 8, 2023 at 15:57
  • @PeterM which is precisely why I chose the setup as I made it
    – Trish
    Jun 8, 2023 at 16:06
  • IMHO the scenario is still overly complex. It just boils down to Bob saying to Alice "Pay me money or I'll release the pics", where the pics of course are non-existent. No need for the internet or BitCoin.
    – Peter M
    Jun 8, 2023 at 16:11

2 Answers 2

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Bob appears to have committed "attempted larceny" by extortion, contrary to § 155.05(2)(e)(v):

(e) By extortion.

A person obtains property by extortion when he compels or induces another person to deliver such property to himself or to a third person by means of instilling in him a fear that, if the property is not so delivered, the actor or another will:

...

(v) Expose a secret or publicize an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject some person to hatred, contempt or ridicule;

See § 110.00:

Attempt to commit a crime.

A person is guilty of an attempt to commit a crime when, with intent to commit a crime, he engages in conduct which tends to effect the commission of such crime.

And see § 110.10 which covers the "impossibility" that Bob actually had compromising images from Alice's non-existent webcam:

Attempt to commit a crime; no defense.

If the conduct in which a person engages otherwise constitutes an attempt to commit a crime pursuant to section 110.00, it is no defense to a prosecution for such attempt that the crime charged to have been attempted was, under the attendant circumstances, factually or legally impossible of commission, if such crime could have been committed had the attendant circumstances been as such person believed them to be.

(NB Bob's sentence, if found guilty, would depend the value of his attempted extortion)

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  • I don't think the "impossibility" provision applies here anyway. "Such person" is the defendant, i.e. Bob. Bob never believed that he had compromising images; he knew that he was lying when he said he did. Jun 7, 2023 at 19:57
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    But I guess the main point is that the essential element is instilling fear that images would be revealed. There's no doubt that Bob did that. Jun 7, 2023 at 20:02
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    Oh, I see, the point is that it was actually impossible to Bob to instill fear, because Alice knew the threat was empty. But he still attempted to instill fear, and the impossibility of doing so is not a defense. Jun 7, 2023 at 23:02
  • @NateEldredge The first time I received such an email I was scared. Not because I thought that the sender had compromising material on me, but because I was worried that my computer was compromised. It was pretty easy to prove it wasn't, but the fear was real for a brief moment.
    – Peter M
    Jun 8, 2023 at 16:00
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It is clearly not NYPC § 135.60, as no physical force is there,

Not so.

The facts presented clearly state an offense of attempting to commit the crime of coercion in the third degree which is colloquially called "extortion."

An attempt crime is committed when "A person is guilty of an attempt to commit a crime when, with intent to commit a crime, he engages in conduct which tends to effect the commission of such crime." NYPC § 110.00.

§ 110.10 Attempt to commit a crime; no defense.

If the conduct in which a person engages otherwise constitutes an attempt to commit a crime pursuant to section 110.00, it is no defense to a prosecution for such attempt that the crime charged to have been attempted was, under the attendant circumstances, factually or legally impossible of commission, if such crime could have been committed had the attendant circumstances been as such person believed them to be.

An attempt to commit a misdemeanor is a Class B misdemeanor. See NYPC § 110.05.

The underlying crime attempted which Bob attempted to commit is as follows:

§ 135.60 Coercion in the third degree.

A person is guilty of coercion in the second degree when he or she compels or induces a person to engage in conduct which the latter has a legal right to abstain from engaging in, . . . by means of instilling in him or her a fear that, if the demand is not complied with, the actor or another will: . . .

5 Expose a secret or publicize an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject some person to hatred, contempt or ridicule; or . . .

9 Perform any other act which would not in itself materially benefit the actor but which is calculated to harm another person materially with respect to his or her health, safety, business, calling, career, financial condition, reputation or personal relationships.

Coercion in the second degree is a class A misdemeanor.

Coercion in the second degree does not require proof of the use of physical force. That is only one of nine possible forms of coercion which can give rise to this offense.

Bob attempted to get Alice to transfer Bitcoin by instilling fear in hear that a secret would be revealed or that Bob would take action that would damage Alice's reputation and/or personal relationships. He thought he could successfully instill fear in Alice and get the Bitcoin even though he was bluffing about his ability to carry out his threat. If Alice had paid the Bitcoin he would have been guilty of coercion in the third degree. But, since he failed to cause Alice to act, he is only guilty of attempted coercion in the third degree.

Bob is also be guilty of attempted larceny by extortion as explained by Rick.

Is that actually the right section or might the whole case be in the wrong venue (e.g. belonging to federal court as wire fraud)?

In most cases involving fraud both state courts and federal courts have jurisdiction over some crimes that apply to the criminal conduct involved.

The FBI has, for decades, had a policy of not investigating property crimes involving a loss of less than $75,000, not as a matter of law, but as a means of rationing scarce investigatory resources. So, the likelihood that federal prosecutors would pursue this case would depend upon the amount demanded and any other factors that make it particularly attractive (e.g. because it is part of a pattern of offenses by the same person affecting victims in many different states).

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