Gangsters are members of a professional crime organization, such as a gang or a mafia group. Usually, members of the mafia or a like organization are referred to as mobsters while individual high-scale criminals who participate in mob-like activity or members of a small criminal enterprise are referred to as gangsters. There can be overlap, however, such as in the case of Dutch Schultz, who ran his own independent gang yet also worked as part of a coalition of Jewish mobsters aligned with the Italian mafia.

Gangsters typically run their operations as a pseudo-business in that they do offer some product or service, albeit an illegal one, for paying customers, rather than outright theft, although they engage in plenty of that as well. For example during the prohibition era, gangsters monopolized the alcohol trade, in the 1950s, they did the same to gambling, and today, they control the trade of narcotics.

Other classic gangster endeavours include prostitution and charging local businesses "protection money" as if the gang were a private security firm, when in fact the payments are made solely to protect the business from the gangsters themselves and sometimes from other gangs. This practice is known as indirect armed robbery or extortion. Additionally, they frequently take over or wield undue influence in labor unions.

Gangsters also are known for attempting to manipulate the outcome of civil institutions, such as court cases and political elections, through bribery and intimidation. When gangsters become particularly powerful, they may eventually develop reciprocal relationships with law enforcement they have managed to corrupt. In this situation the police are handsomely paid off, and in exchange, the police ignore the gangsters' illicit activities or may even assist them by directly taking part in crimes or by arresting competitors.

Today an Ebonics form of the word, "gangsta", has become associated with gangsta rap. This genre's lyrics are often based on living gang-related lifestyles, and can be portrayed in either a realistic, gritty way, or in a cartoonish way. Common street gangs now call themselves "gangsters" or "G", even though the term is more appropiately used with members of organized crime such as the mafia or the yakuza.

Famous individual gangsters include:


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