We all dislike email spam. It clogs up our inboxes, and causes good
engineers to spend way too much time creatively blocking or filtering
it out, while spammers creatively work to get around the blocks. In
my personal life, the spammers are winning. (My employer, Dell, makes
several security and spam-fighting products. I’m not using them for
my personal domains, so this series is not related to Dell products in
I recently came across DMARC, the Domain-based Message Authentication,
Reporting & Conformance specification. One feature of DMARC is that it
allows mail receivers, after processing given piece of mail, to inform
an address at the sending domain of that mail’s disposition: passed,
quarantined, or rejected. This is the first such feedback method I’ve
come across, and it seems to be gaining traction. Furthermore,
services such as dmarcian.com have popped up to act as DMARC report
receivers, which then display your aggregate results in a clear
A DMARC-compliant outbound mail server provides several useful bits of
information. 1) The domain publishes a valid Sender Policy Framework
(SPF) record. 2) The domain signs mail using Domain Keys Identified
Mail (DKIM). These are best practices now, in place by millions of
domains. In addition, the domain publishes its DMARC policy
recommendation, what an inbound mail server should do if a message
purporting to be from the domain fails both SPF and DKIM checks. The
policies today include “none” – do nothing special, “quarantine” –
treat the message as suspect, perhaps applying additional filtering or
sending to a spam folder, and “reject” – reject the message
immediately, sending a bounce back to the sender.
A DMARC-compliant inbound mail server validates each incoming message
against two things: compliance with the Sender Policy Framework (SPF)
and checks the DKIM signature. The server then follows the policy
suggested by the sending domain (none, quarantine, or reject), and
furthermore, reports back the results of its actions daily to the
purported sending domain.
I’ve been publishing SPF records for my personal and community
organization domains for several years, in hopes this would cut down
on spammers pretending to be from my domains. I recently added DKIM
signing, the next step in the process. With these two in place,
publishing a DMARC policy is very straightforward. So I did this,
publishing a “none” policy – just send me reports. And within a few
days, I started getting reports back, which I sent to dmarcian.com for
What did I find?
On a usual day, my personal domain, used by myself and family members,
sends maybe a hundred total emails, as reported by DMARC-reporting
inbound servers. My community org domains may send 1000-2000 emails a
day, particularly if we have announcements to everyone on our lists.
That seems about right.
In addition, spammers, mostly in Russia and other parts of Asia, are
sending upwards of 20,000-40,000+ spam messages pretending to come from my
personal domain, again as reported by DMARC-reporting inbound
servers. Hotmail’s servers kindly are sending me reports for each
failed message they process thinking they were from me – a steady
stream of ~3600/day. No other DMARC servers have sent me such forensic
Spam source by country for the last week
For several days, I experimented with a DMARC policy of “quarantine”,
with various small percentages from 10 to 50 percent. And sure
enough, dmarcian reports that the threat/spam mails were in fact
quarantined. It was really cool to wake up in the morning, check the
overnight results, and see the threat/spam graphs show half of the
messages being quarantined. It’s working!
However, dmarcian also reported that some of my legitimate emails,
originating from my servers and being DKIM-signed, were also getting
quarantined. What? That wasn’t what I hoped for.
It turns out that authentic messages were in fact being forwarded –
some by mailing lists, some by individuals setting up forwarding from
one inbound mail address to another. Neither of which I can do
This isn’t a new problem – it’s the Achilles heel of SPF, which DMARC then inherits. Forwarding email through a mailing list typically makes subtle yet valid changes while keeping the From: line the same.
The Subject: line may get a [listname] prepended to it. The body may
get a “click here to unsubscribe” footer added to it. These
invalidate the original DKIM signature. The list may strip out the
original DKIM signature. And of course, it remails the message,
outbound using its own server name and IP, which causes it to then
fail SPF tests.
Sure, there are suggested solutions, like getting everyone to use
Sender Rewriting Scheme (SRS) when remailing, and fixing Mailman and
every other mailing list manager. Wake me when all the world’s email
servers have added that, I will have been dead a very very long time.
So, I switched back to policy “none”, and get the reports, aggravated
that there’s nothing I can directly do to protect the good name of my
domains. It’s hard both knowing the size of the problem, and knowing
we have no technological method of solving it today. Food for
In part 2 of this series, I will describe my system setup for using
the above techniques.
Do you use SPF? Do you use DKIM? Do you publish a DMARC policy? If so, what has your experience been? Leave comments below.