Receiving a threatening letter can be a jarring experience, particularly if you believe the writer is capable of following up on his threat. In some cases, a threatening letter may be legal if it is worded appropriately. In others, the letter constitutes a terroristic threat and the sender may be criminally or civilly liable. If you're concerned about the contents of a threatening letter, you should contact the police and an attorney.
The most common kind of threatening letter people receive is one seeking payment of a debt. The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) governs the content of these letters. Debt collectors cannot threaten to harm you or your family, nor can they threaten to jail you. They may threaten to file a lawsuit only if they are actually planning to do so and if the law allows them to sue in your particular situation. They must stop contacting you if you ask them to do so and must verify the debt's validity if you request verification. Send all requests to debt collectors in writing. If a debt collector ignores your requests or violates the FDCPA, contact your state Attorney General's office (see Resource 1). Debt collectors can be fined up to £650 for each violation.
Threatening letters are sometimes written to blackmail people. For example, a letter writer may request a sum of money in return for not revealing embarrassing information about you. Blackmail is a crime and the penalties vary from state to state. If you are being blackmailed, you should contact an attorney immediately. Note that settlement offers are different from blackmail. For example, if you are currently being sued, the person suing you could offer to drop the suit if you pay a portion of the money owed. This is legal, but the person suing you can contact you directly only if you do not have an attorney. You should consult an attorney before signing any settlement agreement.
Terroristic threats are statements made threatening to cause bodily harm to another person, and can be conveyed in writing. Making threats to harm another person via letter is a crime punishable by fines and jail time. Each state has its own laws governing threats made in writing (see Resource 2). If you are the recipient of a written threat, you should contact the police immediately. Save the letter and any material that came with it. If the letter was sent anonymously, these pieces of evidence may help the police to find its source.
Libel and Defamation
Defamation is a false accusation that damages someone's reputation. When defamation occurs in writing, it is called libel. Writers of blogs and online review sites are frequently threatened with libel lawsuits when someone is unhappy with what these writers have published. It is not illegal to threaten to sue someone for libel, but it is illegal to harass them or threaten to do physical harm. If you have been threatened with a libel suit, contact an attorney immediately. If you are sued, you will need to proof that your statements were true. If the person does not sue you but continues to contact you, you may be able to get a restraining order.