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Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The email protection group Agari announced the results of an ambitious and — they promise us — legal project to surveil 78 email accounts belonging to so-called Nigerian scammers, both to rescue victims and study the practice. "We’re using social engineering on them the way they have used it on other people," Markus Jakobsson of Agari told Axios.

Why it matters: Studies have examined data provided by victims of Nigerian scams, but this is the first to look at data collected on the other end.

Legal? Agari did not want reporters to reveal the exact methods used to take over the email accounts. But representatives say they've briefed lawyers and law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, none of whom believed there was a legal problem. As described to Codebook, the methods were certainly more aggressive than most traditional research techniques, but appeared difficult to pin down as outright illegal.

The numbers: Nine out of 10 of the scam-spewing accounts researchers observed were actually headquartered in Nigeria at one point during the observation period.

  • The scammers worked for a total of 10 organized crime rings.
  • Most scammers used low yield scams like romance and rental scams as an everyday source of income, and business email compromise (BEC) as a rarer big payday score. Romance scams use fraudulent romantic relationships to extort money or criminal collaboration. BEC convinces users to transfer money to pay off fake invoices, often for large business purchases or real estate.
  • About a quarter of email scams are BEC scams, with sucessful attacks netting an average of $35,000. Out of more than 1,000 emails sent for BECs, four will be successful. But they can be very convincing when opened — four out of every 100 BEC emails opened lead to successful scams.

Go deeper

President Joe Biden vows to be "a president for all Americans"

Moments after taking the oath of office, President Joe Biden sought to soothe a nation riven by political divisions and a global pandemic, while warning that "we have far to go" to heal the country and defeat a "virus that silently stalks the the country."

Why it matters: From the same steps that a pro-Trump mob launched an assault on Congress two weeks earlier, the new president paid deference to the endurance of American political institutions.

Updated 51 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Inauguration Day dashboard

U.S. Capitol and stage are lit at sunrise ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden. Photo: Patrick Semansky - Pool/Getty Images

President Biden has delivered his inaugural address at the Capitol, calling for an end to the politics as total war but warning that "we have far to go" to heal the country.

What's next: Biden and Vice President Harris review readiness of military troops, a long-standing tradition to signify the peaceful transfer of power.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

In photos: The Biden and Harris inauguration

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were inaugurated as president and vice president respectively in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday morning.

Why it matters: Top Democrats and Republicans gathered for the peaceful transfer of power only two weeks after an unprecedented siege on the building by Trump supporters to disrupt certification of Biden's victory. Trump did not attend Wednesday's ceremony.