Difference between Bribery and Extortion

Bribery and extortion have many elements in common, and it is easy to take one as the other. Both are considered by law to be criminal offences and both involve the exchange of valuable items, such as money, in order to influence the actions of one of the parties. In this article, we will examine the differences between the two terms.


Bribery vs Extortion
Photo of cash found in Congressman William J. Jefferson’s freezer in the August 2005 raid was shown to jurors on 8 July 2009 during the hearings on a bribery case

According to Blackstone’s Law Dictionary, bribery is offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting any item of value in order to influence the actions of an official or other person in charge of a public or legal duty.

Bribery is practiced in a variety of areas, including the Government, sports, medicine and economics, and comes in many forms. Payments and favors that potentially constitute bribes include gifts, discounts, free trips, sponsorships, promotions, and inflated sales, among others.

In the history of the United States, there were several notable cases of bribery at the highest official level. These included:

  • U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew was discovered to be taking bribes while serving as Governor of Maryland.
  • Gerald Garcon, former judge in The Supreme Court of the State of New York, was convicted of accepting bribes to influence outcomes of divorce proceedings.
  • John Jenrette, former American politician, was convicted of bribery in the Abscam operation conducted by the FBI.
Loot and Extortion. Statues at Trago Mills, poking fun at the UK Inland Revenue Service

Extortion is a criminal offense which involves obtaining items of value or services through the practice of forcing another party to act in an involuntary manner. Extortion is often referred to as a “protection racket,” because extortion receivers often claim they offer “a protection” to the giver in return for the extorted things. In United States law, extortion can be committed both with and without force involved, the latter making it distinct from a robbery offense.

A lot of criminal offenses involve extortion as an element. For example, blackmail necessarily involves extortion, as the potential receiver threatens to reveal information about a giver unless the latter gives what the former demands.

Serious criminal offenses such as kidnapping, rackets, terrorism, sextortion, and loan sharking are derivative or closely connected to extortion.

Bribery vs Extortion

What is the difference between bribery and extortion?

  • Generally, if the giver is offering a transaction, that would constitute bribery. On the other hand, if the initiator is the potential receiver, that would constitute extortion. There are lots of special cases, however, that one has to consider as far as this distinction is concerned.
  • The key difference between bribery and extortion is that in bribery, the receiver is actually offering something to the giver, while in extortion the giver is not getting anything as a result of the “transaction.” One may think of bribery as a more “fair” exchange between the two criminal offenses. Consider the following example: While exceeding the speed limit, you are stopped by the road police officer. If he asks you to pay him money in order to dismiss the case, this is extortion. If you offer him money first in order for him to forget about what happened, this is bribery.
  • While bribery rarely involves threat, extortion has it as a necessary element. The threat can be very subtle, as in the example of cases that involve laws that can be fully understood only by those who wrote them. When consultants offer their services to clarify such complicated issues, they implicitly threaten the client, implying that the latter may or not be breaking the existing law, and ask for payment before offering the comprehensive answer.
  • Last, but not least, bribery usually involves a Government official, or other specifically mentioned instances of unlawful bribery involved, while extortion may or may not involve people working for Government sub-branches. Extortion can occur between two criminals, or between a husband and a wife, and still be a criminal offense.

Comparison chart

Bribery Extortion
The giver is the initiator of a transaction The receiver is the initiator of a transaction
The receiver of goods, is offering something in return to the giver The receiver of goods, is not offering anything to the giver
Doesn’t necessarily involve threat Usually involves some sort of threat
Usually involves a Government official Usually doesn’t involve a Government official