The Secret World of Celebrity Blackmail

She's only been wearing her Miss New Jersey tiara for about a month, but already Amy Polumbo has been initiated into the world of celebrity blackmail.

Polumbo said last week that someone has threatened to reveal some of her personal photos unless she stepped down as Miss New Jersey by Friday. Polumbo refused, and the photos have still not been made public.

Last week Polumbo, her family and officials in the Miss New Jersey Education Foundation received packages with captioned pictures of her and friends that she may have posted years ago on a social networking site, along with a demand that she resign by Friday.

At a press conference Friday, Polumbo's lawyer, Anthony Caruso, said the beauty queen was more troubled by the "disgusting" captions that he said would make one look at the pictures "in an entirely different light" than the images themselves, The Associated Press reported.

Caruso told The Associated Press that the 22-year-old pageant star received a second package Saturday, with a threatening letter and what may be new photographs of Polumbo.

Caruso did not immediately return calls from ABC News.

Threats Get Bigger, Worse

Celebrity publicists and damage-control experts say most people in the public eye -- from the biggest stars to the lesser known like Polumbo -- are regularly threatened and hit up for cash.

"I don't know any celebrity in America that isn't shaken down for money, blackmailed, extorted -- whether they are male, female, gay, straight, young, old," said celebrity publicist Michael Levine, who has represented stars like Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson and Michael J. Fox.

The packages sent to Polumbo appear to fit what law enforcement veterans say is a typical pattern in blackmail cases -- a series of escalating threats.

But law enforcement, publicists, security experts and the celebrities themselves differ about the best way to deal with these potentially compromising situations. The solutions vary according to who is being threatened and who is doing the threatening.

Pay Off the Blackmail, or Go to the Cops?

Some legal experts say that law enforcement and private investigators should be the first contacts when taking action against blackmail, and that it's better never to give in to a blackmailer's demands.

But to many celebrity publicists, blackmail damage control means dealing with the issue without bringing in outsiders. In a profession where image is everything, the costs of preserving one's reputation often makes the payoff a no-brainer, they say. Giving in to a blackmailer's demands may be the best way to ensure privacy.

"A lot of them settle and pay off the blackmailer because it's just not worth it to fight," said Levine.

The 22-year-old Polumbo's victory in the Miss New Jersey competition last month qualified her for the next Miss America competition -- and has raised her profile as a potential target.

"My guess is that this perpetrator is a female teenager who is frustrated, annoyed and angry, and is trying to gain power or a sense of worth by deflating Polumbo's image or projection of beauty," said Charles Figley, who has consulted celebrities and their families as the director of Psychosocial Stress Research Program at Florida State University.

How to Play the Blackmail Game

Evaluating the proper course of action in a case like Polumbo's, experts say, is especially tricky because alleged blackmail falls into a legal gray area.

"We need to consider the important distinction between what's illegal and what is just unpleasant," said Peter Hemming, a professor at Wayne State University Law school.

Though Polumbo was threatened, no money was requested, making it unclear whether the blackmailer is demanding "something of value" -- a condition necessary to make the threats illegal under federal extortion laws, said Brad Garrett, an ABC News consultant and former FBI agent.

Craig McGroaty, a retired FBI agent who protected several former U.S. attorneys general, including John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, recommends that blackmail victims go straight to law enforcement, because they might already have information on the suspect.

He added that blackmailers are seldom satisfied after their initial demands are met. After a payoff, the blackmailer has no reason to discontinue making demands, and the threat could escalate into some sort of actual confrontation, he said.

Sometimes prosecutors will try to strengthen a client's case with or without law enforcement by encouraging contact with the victim, and egging the suspect on to be more explicit with his or her demands, said Garrett.

"If he's dumb enough to ask for money or make a physical threat, he's given you a case against him," he said.

But in cases where no threats of bodily harm or financial demands are ever made, law enforcement might hand the case over to a private investigator, said Garrett.

A blackmail victim can also seek other legal remedies for coercion, which in some states does not require a monetary demand, or a civil suit for an invasion of privacy, said Roger Adler, a New York criminal lawyer.

The Price of Silence in Hollywood

Celebrities who are being blackmailed, however, often play by their own rules.

In high profile cases, damage control involves a fragile and often complex game of strategy between any combination of blackmailer, celebrity, media, private investigator and law enforcement, often resulting in covert agreements and large payoffs, said the publicist Levine.

"The more veteran celebrities have just gotten used to this. It's just a disgusting aspect of their lives," he added.

Actor Bill Cosby, celebutante Paris Hilton and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, as well as countless politicians and professional athletes, have been targeted by predators, including stalkers, employees and even their own friends who are looking to make a buck or shake up the star.

Levine said this problem has worsened in the past 10 years, as the public and media have become more star-obsessed, and as more and more people have adopted the Internet -- which allows for the immediate and widespread transfer of videos, pictures and text.

Figley has consulted more than 150 celebrities, and he said 30 admitted they've been blackmailed. He noted that the public rarely hears about many of these blackmail situations because of copycatting concerns, and seeking help often draws more attention to the very thing the celebrity wants to hide or deny.

Dr. Jen Berman, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist who deals with celebrity clients, said it may be a good idea for celebrities to beat their blackmailers to the punch.

"Celebrities must be prepared for this," she said. "They need to figure out what their Achilles' heel is and be a step ahead of someone who could make a threat of them. Those kind of preemptive strikes are really smart and often save careers. Everyone makes mistakes, but the public tends to be more forgiving when people are straight about it and don't pretend to be holier-than-thou."

Comments