The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, or RICO statute, is a piece of United States federal legislation dedicated to breaking up organized crime. The law was designed to achieve that goal by targeting enterprises and individuals found to have engaged in patterns of racketeering activity. Under the statute, racketeering is legal terminology for the “act or threat of murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, extortion, dealing in obscene matter, or dealing in a controlled substance or listed chemical.” The list continues, with other racketeering offenses ranging from the forgery of passports to mail fraud.
Under the far-reaching influence of the RICO statute, an enterprise or person can be convicted of and face charges for racketeering in any territory or possession of the US, allowing the act's authority to be exercised across all state lines as well as in areas such as Guam and Puerto Rico. Those charged under the law face fines, imprisonment, or both as well as the mandate to surrender to the federal government any enterprise and assets acquired by means of racketeering activity. Under this set of penalties, the federal government is not only able to prosecute crime syndicate bosses, but to prosecute criminal associates as well as seize the actual operations beneath them. This enables the statute to deal a considerable blow to the entirety of a corrupt organization.
Over time, the RICO statute has been used not only to target the Mafia’s crooked dealings, but any organization — legitimate or otherwise — engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity. This is particularly useful with organized crime syndicates that smokescreen themselves behind a wall of legitimate business structures. After the World Trade Center attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, the law has also seen increased use in targeting terrorist enterprises.
The statute was also designed for civil cases, with the intent to function as a restorative tool for victims of racketeering. The law stipulates that individuals who have sustained injury to property or business due to racketeering activity may sue and are entitled to three times the amount of their losses. The extent to which the act can be interpreted by plaintiffs in civil RICO claims has led to some amount of fear and controversy, with critics leveling accusations that the law’s wording is too broad, particularly in the areas of mail and wire fraud, and can be used to unfairly seek damages from non-criminal enterprises.