Network Working Group G. Lindberg
Request for Comments: 2505 Chalmers University of Technology
BCP: 30 February 1999
Category: Best Current Practice
Anti-Spam Recommendations for SMTP MTAs
Status of this Memo
This document specifies an Internet Best Current Practices for the
Internet Community, and requests discussion and suggestions for
improvements. Distribution of this memo is unlimited.
Copyright (C) The Internet Society (1999). All Rights Reserved.
This memo gives a number of implementation recommendations for SMTP,
, MTAs (Mail Transfer Agents, e.g. sendmail, ) to make them
more capable of reducing the impact of spam(*).
The intent is that these recommendations will help clean up the spam
situation, if applied on enough SMTP MTAs on the Internet, and that
they should be used as guidelines for the various MTA vendors. We are
fully aware that this is not the final solution, but if these
recommendations were included, and used, on all Internet SMTP MTAs,
things would improve considerably and give time to design a more long
term solution. The Future Work section suggests some ideas that may
be part of such a long term solution. It might, though, very well be
the case that the ultimate solution is social, political, or legal,
rather than technical in nature.
The implementor should be aware of the increased risk of denial of
service attacks that several of the proposed methods might lead to.
For example, increased number of queries to DNS servers and increased
size of logfiles might both lead to overloaded systems and system
crashes during an attack.
A brief summary of this memo is:
o Stop unauthorized mail relaying.
o Spammers then have to operate in the open; deal with them.
o Design a mail system that can handle spam.
This memo is a Best Current Practice (BCP) RFC. As such it should be
used as a guideline for SMTP MTA implementors to make their products
more capable of preventing/handling spam. Despite this being its
primary goal, an intended side effect is to suggest to the
sysadmin/Postmaster community which "anti spam knobs" an SMTP MTA is
expected to have.
However, this memo is not generally intended as a description on how
to operate an SMTP MTA - which "knobs" to turn and how to configure
the options. If suggestions are provided, they will be clearly marked
and they should be read as such.
Mass unsolicited electronic mail, often known as spam(*), has
increased considerably during a short period of time and has become a
serious threat to the Internet email community as a whole. Something
needs to be done fairly quickly.
The problem has several components:
o It is high volume, i.e. people get a lot of such mail in their
o It is completely "blind", i.e. there is no correlation between
the receivers' areas of interest and the actual mail sent out (at
least if one assumes that not everybody on the Internet is
interested in porno pictures and spam programs...).
o It costs real money for the receivers. Since many receivers pay
for the time to transfer the mailbox from the (dialup) ISP to
their computer they in reality pay real money for this.
o It costs real money for the ISPs. Assume one 10 Kbyte message
sent to 10 000 users with their mailboxes at one ISP host; that
means an unsolicited, unexpected, storage of 100 Mbytes. State
of the art disks, 4 Gbyte, can take 40 such message floods before
they are filled. It is almost impossible to plan ahead for such
o Many of the senders of spam are dishonest, e.g. hide behind false
return addresses, deliberately write messages to look like they
were between two individuals so the spam recipient will think it
was just misdelivered to them, say the message is "material you
requested" when you never asked for it, and generally do
everything they can without regard to honesty or ethics, to try
to get a few more people to look at their message.
In fact some of the spam-programs take a pride in adding false
info that will "make the ISPs scratch their heads".
It is usually the case that people who send in protests (often
according to the instructions in the mail) find their mail
addresses added to more lists and sold to other parties.
o It is quite common practice to make use of third party hosts as
relays to get the spam mail sent out to the receivers. This theft
of service is illegal in most - if not all - countries (at least
in the US spammers have been successfully sued). However, with
the original sender in the US, the (innocent) relay in Sweden and
the list of receivers back in the US, the legal process of
getting damages from the spammers becomes extremely difficult.
This memo has no intention of being the final solution to the spam
If, however, enough Internet MTAs did implement enough of the rules
described below (especially the Non-Relay rules), we would get the
spammers out in the open, where they could be taken care of. Either
pure legal actions would help, or we can block them technically using
other rules described below (since the Non-Relay rules now make them
appear openly, with their own hosts and domains, we can apply various
access filters against them). In reality, a combination of legal and
technical methods is likely to give the best result.
This way, the spam problem could be reduced enough to allow the
Internet community to design and deploy a real and general solution.
But, please note:
The Non-Relay rules are not in themselves enough to stop spam.
Even if 99% of the SMTP MTAs implemented them from Day 1,
spammers would still find the remaining 1% and use them. Or
spammers would just switch gear and connect directly to each and
every recipient host; that will be to a higher cost for the
spammer, but is still quite likely.
Even though IPv6 deployment may be near, the spam problem is here
already and thus this memo restricts itself to the current IPv4.
Throughout this memo we will use the terminology of RFC2119, :
This word or the adjective "REQUIRED" means that the item is an
This word or the adjective "RECOMMENDED" means that there may
exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore this
item, but the full implications should be understood and the case
carefully weighed before choosing a different course.
This word or the adjective "OPTIONAL" means that this item is
truly optional. One vendor may choose to include the item because
a particular marketplace requires it or because it enhances the
product, for example; another vendor may omit the same item.
1.4. Using DNS information
In the memo we sometimes use the term "host name" or "domain name"
which should be interpreted as a Fully Qualified Domain Name, FQDN.
By this we mean the name returned from the DNS in response to a PTR
query (.IN-ADDR.ARPA), i.e. when an IP address is translated to a
name, or we mean a name with a DNS A or MX record associated to it
RFC1034, , and RFC1035, .
When we suggest use of FQDNs rather than IP addresses this is because
FQDNs are intuitively much easier to use. However, all such usage
depends heavily on DNS and .IN-ADDR.ARPA (PTR) information. Since it
is fairly easy to forge that, either by false cache information
injected in DNS servers or spammers running their own DNS with false
information in them, host and domain names must be used with care,
e.g. verified so that the translation address->name corresponds to
name->address. With Secure DNS, RFC2065, , things will improve,
since spoofing of .IN-ADDR.ARPA will no longer be possible.
One of the recommendations is about verifying "MAIL From:" (envelope
originator) domains with the DNS (assure that appropriate DNS
information exists for the domain). When making use of this
capability there are a few things to consider:
(1) One must not forget the increased amount of DNS queries which
might result in problems for the DNS server itself to cope with
the load. This itself can result in a denial of service attack
against the DNS server just by sending email to a site.
(2) It should be noted that with negative caching in the DNS, forged
DNS responses can be used to mount denial of service attacks.
For example, if a site is known to implement a FQDN validity
check on addresses in SMTP "MAIL From:" commands, an attacker may
be able to use negative DNS responses to effectively block
acceptance of mail from one or more origins. Because of this, one
should carefully check the DNS server in use, e.g. how it
verifies that incoming responses correspond to outstanding
queries, to minimize the risk for such attacks.
(3) For early versions of spam software FQDN checks provide quite
some relief, since that software generates mail with completely
bogus "MAIL From:" that will never get into the system if
verified with the DNS. This is in active use at many
installations today and it does reduce spam.
On the other hand, sites with weak DNS connectivity may find their
legitimate mail having problems reaching destinations due to DNS
timeouts when the receivers verify their "MAIL From:". However, since
DNS information is handled asynchronously and is cached even though
the initial requester has given up, chances are high that the
necessary information is there at a later attempt.
For later versions of spam software, a check of "MAIL From:" is much
less likely to help, since spam software evolves too and will start
using existing mail addresses (whether or not that is legal is beyond
the scope of this memo). But, at least the Internet will benefit from
the side effect that this test stops typos and misconfigured UAs.
1.5. Where to block spam, in SMTP, in RFC822 or in the UA
Our basic assumption is that refuse/accept is handled at the SMTP
layer and that an MTA that decides to refuse a message should do so
while still in the SMTP dialogue. First, this means that we do not
have to store a copy of a message we later decide to refuse and
second, our responsibility for that message is low or none - since we
have not yet read it in, we leave it to the sender to handle the
1.6. SMTP Return Codes
SMTP has several classes of Return Codes, see  for a discussion:
is a Permanent Negative Completion reply (Fatal Error) and
results in the mail transfer being terminated and the mail
returned to sender.
is a Transient Negative Completion reply (Temporary Error) and
results in the mail transfer being put back on queue again and a
new attempt being made later.
is a Positive Completion reply and indicates that the MTA now has
taken responsibility for the delivery of the mail.
When making use of the options/"knobs" described in this memo there
are a few things to consider:
For some events, like "Denied - you're on the spammer's list", 5xx
may be the correct Return Code, since it terminates the session at
once and we are done with it (assuming that the spammer plays by the
SMTP rules, which he may decide not to do - in fact he can put the
mail back on queue or turn to some other host, regardless of Return
Code). However, a 5xx mistake in a configuration may cause legitimate
mail to bounce, which may be quite unfortunate.
Therefore, we suggest 4xx as the Return Code for most cases. Since
that is a non fatal error, the mail gets re-queued at the sender and
we have at least some time to discover and correct configuration
errors, rather than have mail bounce (typically this is when we
refuse to Relay for domains that we actually should accept since we
are on their MX list).
A 4xx response also makes the spammer's host re-queue the mail and if
it really is his own host who gets to do this it is probably a good
thing - fill up his disks with his own spam. If, on the other hand,
he is using someone else as Relay Host, all the spam mail being
queued is a fairly strong evidence that something bad is going on and
should cause attention at that Relay Host.
However, 4xx Temporary Errors may have unexpected interaction with
MX-records. If the receiving domain has several MX records and the
lowest preference MX-host refuses to receive mail with a "451"
Response Code, the sending host may choose to - and often will - use
the next host on the MX list.
If that next MX host does not have the same refuse-list, it will of
course accept the mail, only to find that the final host still
refuses to receive that piece of mail ("MAIL From:"). Our intent was
to make the offending mail stay at the offending sender's host and
fill up his mqueue disk, but it all ended up at our friend, the next
lowest preference MX-host.
Finally, it has been suggested that one may use a 2xx Return Code but
nevertheless decide not to forward or receive the spam mail; typical
alternatives are to store it elsewhere (e.g. /dev/null). This clearly
violates the intent of RFC821 and should not be done without careful
consideration - instead of blindly dropping the mail one could re-
queue it and manually (or automagically) inspect whether it is spam
or legitimate mail and whether it should be dropped or forwarded.
1.7. Mailing Lists
An MTA that also has the ability to handle mailing lists and expand
that to a number of recipients, needs to be able to authorize senders
and protect its lists from spam. The mechanisms for this may be very
different from those for ordinary mail and ordinary users and are not
covered in this memo.
Here we first give a brief list of recommendations, followed by a
more thorough discussion of each of them. We will also give
recommendations on things NOT to do, things that may seem natural in
the spam fight (and might even work so far) but that might wreak
havoc on Internet mail and thus may cause more damage than good.
1) MUST be able to restrict unauthorized use as Mail Relay.
2) MUST be able to provide "Received:" lines with enough
information to make it possible to trace the mail path, despite
spammers use forged host names in HELO statements etc.
3) MUST be able to provide local log information that makes it
possible to trace the event afterwards.
4) SHOULD be able to log all occurrences of anti-relay/anti-spam
5) SHOULD be able to refuse mail from a host or a group of hosts.
6a) MUST NOT refuse "MAIL From: <>".
6b) MUST NOT refuse "MAIL From: <firstname.lastname@example.org>".
7a) SHOULD be able to refuse mail from a specific "MAIL From:"
7b) SHOULD be able to refuse mail from an entire "MAIL From:" domain
8) SHOULD be able to limit ("Rate Control") mail flow.
9) SHOULD be able to verify "MAIL From:" domain (using DNS or
10) SHOULD be able to verify <local-part> in outgoing mail.
11) SHOULD be able to control SMTP VRFY and EXPN.
12) SHOULD be able to control SMTP ETRN.
13) MUST be able to configure to provide different Return Codes
for different rules (e.g. 451 Temp Fail vs 550 Fatal Error).
The discussion below often ends up with a need to do various forms of
pattern matching on domain/host names and IP addresses/subnets. It
is RECOMMENDED that the data/template for doing so may be supplied
outside of the MTA, e.g. that the pattern matching rules be included
in the MTA but that the actual patterns may be in an external file.
It is also RECOMMENDED that the pattern matching rules (external
file) may contain regular expressions, to give maximum flexibility.
Of course string matching on domain/host names MUST NOT be case
sensitive. Since <local-part> may be case sensitive it may be natural
to keep that here. However, since <sPAmMeR@domain.example> and
<email@example.com> is most probably the same user and since the
string compares are used to refuse his messages, we suggest that
<local-part> comparisons be case insensitive too.
The interpretation that should apply to all these recommendations is
flexibility - regardless of how well we design anti-spam rules today,
spammers will find ways around them and a well designed MTA should be
flexible enough to meet those new threats.
2.1. Restricting unauthorized Mail Relay usage
Unauthorized usage of a host as Mail Relay means theft of the relay's
resources and puts the relay owner's reputation at risk. It also
makes it impossible to filter out or block spam without at the same
time blocking legitimate mail.
Therefore, the MTA MUST be able to control/refuse such Relay usage.
In an SMTP session we have 4 elements, each with a varying degree of
1) "HELO Hostname" Easily and often forged.
2) "MAIL From:" Easily and often forged.
3) "RCPT To:" Correct, or at least intended.
4) SMTP_Caller (host) IP.src addr OK, FQDN may be OK.
Since 1) and 2) are so easily and often forged, we cannot depend on
them at all to authorize usage of our host as Mail Relay.
Instead, the MTA MUST be able to authorize Mail Relay usage based on
a combination of:
o "RCPT To:" address (domain).
o SMTP_Caller FQDN hostname.
o SMTP_Caller IP address.
The suggested algorithm is:
a) If "RCPT To:" is one of "our" domains, local or a domain that
we accept to forward to (alternate MX), then accept to Relay.
b) If SMTP_Caller is authorized, either its IP.src or its FQDN
(depending on if you trust the DNS), then accept to Relay.
c) Else refuse to Relay.
When doing a) you have to make sure all kinds of SMTP source routing
(both the official [@a,@b:u@c], the '%' hack and uucp-style '!' path)
is either removed completely before the test, or at least is
taken into account.
A site implementing this requirement must also be aware that they
might block correctly addressed messages, especially such originating
or terminating in a gateway to a different mail system than SMTP.
Before implementing such a policy, a careful inventory should be done
to make sure all routing algorithms used, either by other mail
systems or ad-hoc, are known. Each one of such systems must be taken
care of on a case-by-case basis.
Examples of such mail systems, and their addressing schemes are X.400
with an address of the type:
Another example involves DECnet MAIL-11, which can have addresses in
In all cases the configuration MUST support wild cards for FQDNs and
classful IP addresses and SHOULD support "address/mask" for classless
IP addresses, e.g. domain.example and *.domain.example; 10.11.*.*,
192.168.1.*, 192.168.2.*, 10.0.0.0/13, 192.168.1.0/23.
The configuration SHOULD allow for the decision/template data to be
supplied by an external source, e.g. text file or dbm database. The
decision/template SHOULD be allowed to contain regular expressions.
2.2. Received: lines
The MTA MUST prepend a "Received:" line in the mail (as described in
RFC822, , and required in RFC1123, ). This "Received:" line
MUST contain enough information to make it possible to trace the mail
path back to the sender. We have two cases:
2.2.1. Direct MTA-to-MTA connections
Internet mail was designed such that the sending host connects
directly to the recipient as described by MX records (there may be
several MX hosts on a priority list). To assure traceability back to
the sending host (which may be a firewall/gateway, as described
later) each MTA along the path, including the final MTA, MUST prepend
a "Received:" line. For such a "Received:" line we have:
It MUST contain:
o The IP address of the caller.
o The 'date-time' as described in RFC822, , pp 18.
It SHOULD contain:
o The FQDN corresponding to the callers IP address.
o The argument given in the "HELO" statement.
o Authentication information, if an authenticated connection
was used for the transmission / submission.
It is suggested that most other "Received:" fields described in
RFC822 be included in the "Received:" lines.
Basically, any information that can help tracing the message can and
should be added to the "Received:" line. It is true even when the
initial submission is non-SMTP, for example submission via a web-based
mail client where http is used between the web client and server, a
"Received:" line can be used to identify that connection stating what
IP-address was used when connecting to the http server where the mail
These recommendations are deliberately stronger than RFC1123, ,
and are there to assure that mail sent directly from a spammer's host
to a recipient can be traced with enough accuracy; a typical example
is when a spammer uses a dialup account and the ISP needs to have his
IP address at the 'date-time' to be able to take action against him.
2.2.2. Firewall/gateway type devices
Organizations with a policy of hiding their internal network structure
must still be allowed and able to do so. They usually make their
internal MTAs prepend "Received:" lines with a very limited amount of
information, or prepend none at all. Then they send out the mail
through some kind of firewall/gateway device, which may even remove
all the internal MTAs' "Received:" lines before it prepends its own
"Received:" line (as required in RFC1123, ).
By doing so they take on the full responsibility to trace spammers
that send from inside their organization or they accept to be held
responsible for those spammers' activities. It is REQUIRED that the
information provided in their outgoing mail is sufficient for them to
perform any necessary traces.
In the case of incoming mail to an organization, the "Received:"
lines MUST be kept intact to make sure that users receiving mail on
the inside can give information needed to trace incoming messages to
Generally, a gateway SHOULD NOT change or delete "Received:" lines
unless it is a security requirement to do so. Changing the content
of existing "Received:" lines to make sure they "make sense" when
passing a mail gateway of some kind most often destroys and deletes
information needed to make a message traceable. Care must be taken to
preserve the information in "Received:" lines, either in the message
itself, the mail that the receiver gets, or if that is impossible, in
2.3. Event logs
The MTA MUST be able to provide enough local log information to make
it possible to trace the event. This includes most of the information
put into the "Received:" lines; see above.
2.4. Log anti-relay/anti-spam actions
The MTA SHOULD be able to log all anti-relay/anti-spam actions. The
log entries SHOULD contain at least:
o Time information.
o Refusal information, i.e. why the request was refused ("Mail
From", "Relaying Denied", "Spam User", "Spam Host", etc).
o "RCPT To:" addresses (domains).
(If the connection was disallowed at an earlier stage, e.g.
by checking the SMTP_Caller IP address, the "RCPT To:"
address is unknown and therefore cannot be logged).
o Offending host's IP address.
o Offending host's FQDN hostname.
o Other relevant information (e.g. given during the SMTP
dialogue, before we decided to refuse the request).
It should be noted that by logging more events, especially denied
email, one opens the possibility for denial of service attacks, for
example by filling logs by having a very large amount of "RCPT To:"
commands. An implementation that implements increased logging
according to this description must be aware of the fact that the size
of the logfiles increases, especially during attacks.
2.5. Refuse mail based on SMTP_Caller address
The MTA SHOULD be able to accept or refuse mail from a specific host
or from a group of hosts. Here we mean the IP.src address or the FQDN
that its .IN-ADDR.ARPA resolves to (depending on whether you trust
the DNS). This functionality could be implemented at a firewall, but
since the MTA should be able to "defend itself" we recommend it be able
to as well.
It is RECOMMENDED that the MTA be able to decide based on FQDN hostnames
(host.domain.example), on wild card domain names (*.domain.example),
on individual IP addresses (10.11.12.13) or on IP addresses with a
prefix length (10.0.0.0/8, 192.168.1.0/24).
It is also RECOMMENDED that these decision rules can be combined to
form a flexible list of accept/refuse/accept/refuse, e.g:
The list is searched until first match and the accept/refuse action
is based on that.
IP-address/length is RECOMMENDED. However, implementations with wild
cards, e.g. 10.11.12.* (classful networks on byte boundaries only)
are of course much better than those without.
To improve filtering even more, the MTA MAY provide complete regular
expressions to be used for hostnames; possibly also for IP addresses.
2.6. "MAIL From: <>" and "MAIL From: <firstname.lastname@example.org>"
Although the fight against spammers is important it must never be
done in a way that violates existing email standards. Since spammers
often forge "MAIL From:" addresses it is tempting to put general
restrictions on that, especially for some "obvious" addresses. This
may, however, wreak more havoc to the mail community than spam does.
When there is a need to refuse mail from a particular host or site
our recommendation is to use other methods mentioned in this memo,
e.g. refuse mail based on SMTP_Caller address (or name), regardless
of what "MAIL From:" was used.
2.6.1. "MAIL From: <>"
The MTA MUST NOT refuse to receive "MAIL From: <>".
The "MAIL From: <>" address is used in error messages from the mail
system itself, e.g. when a legitimate mail relay is used and forwards
an error message back to the user. Refusing to receive such mail
means that users may not be notified of errors in their outgong mail,
e.g. "User unknown", which will no doubt wreak more havoc to the
mail community than spam does.
The most common case of such legitimate "MAIL From: <>" is to one
recipient, i.e. an error message returned to one single individual.
Since spammers have used "MAIL From: <>" to send to many recipients,
it is tempting to either reject such mail completely or to reject all
but the first recipient. However, there are legitimate causes for an
error mail to go to multiple recipients, e.g. a list with several
list owners, all located at the same remote site, and thus the MTA
MUST NOT refuse "MAIL From: <>" even in this case.
However, the MTA MAY throttle down the TCP connection ("read()"
frequency) if there are more than one "RCPT To:" and that way slow
down spammers using "MAIL From: <>".
2.6.2. "MAIL From: <email@example.com>"
The MTA MUST NOT refuse "MAIL From: <firstname.lastname@example.org>".
By "my.local.dom.ain" we mean the domain name(s) that are treated as
local and result in local delivery. At first thought it may seem like
noone else will need to use "MAIL From: <email@example.com>" and
that restrictions on who may use that would reduce the risk of fraud
and thus reduce spam. While this may be true in the (very) short
term, it also does away with at least two legitimate usages:
o Aliases (.forward files).
<firstname.lastname@example.org> sends to <email@example.com> and
that mail gets forwarded back to <firstname.lastname@example.org>, e.g.
since <user2> has moved to my.local.dom.ain and has a .forward
file at external.example.
o Mailing lists.
RFC1123, , gives a clear requirement that "MAIL From:" for
mail from a mailing list should reflect the owner of the list,
rather than the individual sender. Because of this fact, and the
fact that the owner of the list might not be in the same domain
as the list (list host) itself, mail may arrive to the list
owner's domain (mail host) from a foreign domain (from a host
serving a foreign domain) with the list owner's local domain in
the "Mail From:" command.
If "MAIL From: <email@example.com>" is rejected, both these cases
will result in failure to deliver legitimate mail.
2.7. Refuse based on "MAIL From:"
The MTA SHOULD be able to refuse to receive mail from a specific
"MAIL From:" user (firstname.lastname@example.org) or from an entire "MAIL From:"
domain (domain.example). In general these kinds of rules are easily
overcome by the spammers changing "MAIL From:" every so often, but
the ability to block a certain user or a certain domain is quite
helpful while an attack has just been discovered and is ongoing.
Please note that
"MAIL From: <>"
"MAIL From: <email@example.com>"
MUST NOT be refused (see above), except when other policies block the
connection, for example when the SMTP_Caller IP address of the peer
belongs to a network which is deliberately refused.
2.8. Rate Control
The MTA SHOULD provide tools for the mail host to control the rate
with which mail is sent or received. The idea is twofold:
1) If we happen to have an legitimate mail user with an existing
legitimate account and this user sends out spam, we may want to
reduce the speed with which he sends it out. This is not without
controversy and must be used with extreme care, but it may
protect the rest of the Internet from him.
2) If we are under a spam attack it may help us considerably just
being able to slow down the incoming mail rate for that
For sending mail, this has to be done by throttling the TCP
connection to set the acceptable output data rate, e.g. reduce the
For receiving mail, we could use basically the same technique, e.g.
reduce the "read()" frequency, or we could signal with a 4xx Return
Code that we cannot receive. It is RECOMMENDED that the decision to
take such action be based on "MAIL From:" user, "MAIL From:" domain,
SMTP_Caller (name/address), "RCPT TO:", or a combination of all
2.9. Verify "MAIL From:"
The MTA SHOULD be able to perform a simple "sanity check" of the
"MAIL From:" domain and refuse to receive mail if that domain is
nonexistent (i.e. does not resolve to having an MX or an A record).
If the DNS error is temporary, TempFail, the MTA MUST return a 4xx
Return Code (Temporary Error). If the DNS error is an Authoritative
NXdomain (host/domain unknown) the MTA SHOULD still return a 4xx
Return Code (since this may just be primary and secondary DNS not
being in sync) but it MAY allow for an 5xx Return Code (as configured
by the sysadmin).
2.10. Verify <local-part>
The MTA SHOULD allow outgoing mail to have its <local-part> verified
so that the sender name is a real user or an existing alias. This is
basically to protect the rest of the Internet from various "typos"
MAIL From: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
and/or malicious users
MAIL From: <I.email@example.com>
As always this can be overcome by spammers really wanting to do so,
but with more strict rules for relaying it becomes harder and harder.
In fact, catching "typos" at the initial (and official) mail relay is
in itself enough motivation for this recommendation.
2.11. SMTP VRFY and EXPN
Both SMTP VRFY and EXPN provide means for a potential spammer to test
whether the addresses on his list are valid (VRFY) and even get more
addresses (EXPN). Therefore, the MTA SHOULD control who is is allowed
to issue these commands. This may be "on/off" or it may use access
lists similar to those mentioned previously.
Note that the "VRFY" command is required according to RFC821, .
The response can, though, be "252 Argument not checked" to represent
"off" or blocked via an access list. This should be the default.
Default for the "EXPN" command should be "off".
2.12. SMTP ETRN
SMTP ETRN means that the MTA will re-run its mail queue, which may be
quite costly and open for Denial of Service attacks. Therefore, the
MTA SHOULD control who is is allowed to issue the ETRN command. This
may be "on/off" or it may use access lists similar to those mentioned
previously. Default should be "off".
2.13. Return Codes
The primary issue here is flexibility - it is simply not possible to
define in a document how to make tradeoffs between returning 5xx and
make legitimate mail fail at once due to a configuration mistake and
returning 4xx and be able to catch such configuration mistakes via
log file inspection.
Therefore, the MTA MUST be configurable to provide "Success" (2xx),
"Temporary Failure" (4xx) or "Permanent Failure" (5xx) for different
rules or policies. The exact return codes, other than the first digit
(2, 4 or 5) should, however, not be configurable. This is because of
the ease of configuring the software in the wrong way, and the fact
that the selection of exactly what error code to use is very subtle
and that many software implementations do check more than the first
digit (2, 4 or 5) in the return code.
However, when the response is the result of a DNS lookup and the DNS
system returned TempFail, a temporary error, the MTA MUST reflect
this and provide a 4xx return code. If the DNS response is an
Authoritative NXdomain (host or domain unknown) the MTA MAY reflect
this by a 5xx Return Code.
Please refer to the previous discussion on SMTP Return Codes for
2.13.1. The importance of flexibility - an example
At Chalmers University of Technology our DNS contains
cdg.chalmers.se. IN MX 0 mail.cdg.chalmers.se.
IN MX 100 mail.chalmers.se.
and similarly for most subdomains, i.e. a second host to store mail
to each subdomain, should their mail host be down. This means that
mail.chalmers.se must be prepared to act as Mail Relay for the
subdomains ("RCPT To:") it serves and that those subdomains' mail
hosts have to accept SMTP connections from mail.chalmers.se. Late
versions of spam software make use of this fact by always using
mail.chalmers.se to get their mail delivered to our subdomains and by
doing so they still get Mail Relaying done for them and they prevent
recipient hosts from refusing SMTP connections based on the sending
host's FQDN or IP-address.
As long as we keep our design with a secondary MX host we cannot
really have mail.chalmers.se refuse Mail Relay, at least not with a
5xx return code. However, it has been fairly straight forward to
identify the hosts/domains/networks that make use of this possibility
and refuse to act as Mail Relay for them them - and only them - and
do so with a 4xx return code. Legitimate mail from them may be
delayed if the final recipient host is down but will eventually be
delivered when it gets up again (4xx Return Code) and this is no
worse then if we changed our MX design. Spam now faces a "Denied"
response and have to connect to each and every one of the recipients,
who may decide to refuse the SMTP connection.
The bottom line is that this is made possible because of 1) enough
flexibility in the Relay Authorization code and 2) enough flexibility
in assigning Return Codes - an MTA with a 5xx Return Code carved in
stone would have made this absolutely impossible.
3. Future work
3.1. Impact on SMTP UAs and end users
Even though this memo is about MTAs and recommendations for them,
some of what is done here also impacts UAs (User Agents, the
"ordinary mail programs").
A UA does two things:
1) Reads mail from a mailbox and prints on the screen.
This typically uses a protocol like POP, IMAP or NFS.
2) Reads text from the keyboard and hands that over to the mailbox
MTA for delivery as a piece of mail. This typically uses the SMTP
protocol, i.e. the same protocol that is used between MTAs.
When MTAs now start to implement various anti-relay filters as
described above, a UA on a portable laptop host may get a response
like "Relaying Denied" just because it happens to use IP addresses
within an unknown range or that resolve to unknown FQDNs.
The typical victim of this "Relaying Denied" response is a salesman
carrying a laptop on a business trip, or even an IETF delegate at a
meeting hotel. The salesman will probably dial his nearest ISP and
will get an IP address from that dialup pool; the IETF delegate will
use an IP address from the terminal room. In both cases their laptop
mail program (the UA; e.g. pine, Netscape, Eudora) will try to send
out mail via their home MTA, e.g. SMTP-SERVER=mail.home.example, but
unless mail.home.example has been updated to accept that (temporary)
IP address it will respond "Relaying Denied" and refuse.
To get around this problem we could simply add the terminal room's or
the dialup pool's IP network to the list of accepted networks at
mail.home.example. This does open up some minimal risk of spammers
using that host as their Mail Relay: If they use the same ISP's
dialup pool and they configure to use mail.home.example at the same
time as our salesman is on his trip, then the spammers will be
authorized to relay their spam through mail.home.example. However,
this is not extremely likely and as long as we do not open up for the
entire world all the time and we keep the log files under close
observation and we stop relaying at once we find we're being used,
this solution is probably good enough.
Another way around is that our salesman uses a Mail Relay provided by
the current dialup ISP, if that service exists. To do so he has to
modify SMTP-SERVER= in his UA, which may or may not be reasonable.
The correct way to handle this situation, though, is by some other
mail-sending protocol between the UA and the MTA.
Although a separate submission protocol does not exist, a profile of
SMTP for this, the "Message Submission" specification, , has
recently been defined.
Or, we could note that when the SMTP Authentication work, , is
all in place, it will allow for Authenticated SMTP to serve as The
Protocol between the UAs and the home MTA (whether that should be
considered a new protocol or "the same old SMTP" is irrelevant here).
This adds one item to the suggested Relay algorithm in section 2.1:
+ If "SMTP Authenticated" then accept to Relay.
3.2. Personal anti-spam filters
Since all users are individuals, there is little hope that any
central anti-spam action will suit them all - in fact people can and
do argue about Freedom of Speech infringement if some central set of
anti-spam rules is enforced without the users' approval. (One could
of course also argue whether spam really adds anything to anyone, but
that must be up to each individual user to decide, rather than being
Therefore the only reasonable extension is to allow for personal
anti-spam filters, i.e. anti-spam filters like the ones described
earlier in this memo, but available and configurable on a per user
basis. Since most users will not have a strong opinion (except that
they want to avoid spam) the mail system should provide a system
default and give each user the ability to override or modify that.
In a UNIX based environment one could have something like
and rules on how the latter can interfere with the former.
All of this opens up quite a number of unresolved issues, e.g.
whether each user himself really should be allowed to decide on SMTP
Return Codes (and how it should be described so he understands enough
of the implications) and how existing mail systems will deal with
different per user responses, especially how they will deal with a
mix of 5xx and 4xx codes:
C MAIL From: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
S 250 <email@example.com>... Sender ok
C RCPT To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
S 250 <email@example.com>... Recipient ok
C RCPT To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
S 451 <email@example.com>... Denied due to spam list
C RCPT To: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
S 550 <email@example.com>... Denied due to spam list
Of course one could decide on either "250 OK" or "550 Denied" with no
other alternatives for the individual user, but this too has to be
explained enough that an ordinary user understands the implications
of "Refuse 'MAIL From: <.*@spam.example>'" and that it can do away
with, or block out, mail he actually wanted.
3.3. SMTP Authentication
SMTP Authentication, , has already been mentioned as a method to
authorize Mail Relaying, but of course there is much more to it than
that. When that infrastructure and functionality is all in place,
spammers will have a much harder time forging addresses and hiding.
3.4. Spam and NATs
With the increased use of Network Address Translators (NATs) may come
a need for additional information in log files. As long as there is a
1:1 mapping between the addresses inside the NAT and the addresses
used outside it everything is OK, but if the NAT box also translates
port numbers (to combine many internal hosts into one external
address) we will need to log not only the IP addresses of spam hosts
but also the port numbers. Otherwise we will not be able to identify
the individual host inside the NAT.
4. Security Considerations
The grassfire-like increase of spam raises several security issues
which, in fact, puts the entire Internet mail community at risk:
o People may fail to find important mail in their flooded
mailboxes. Or, they may delete it while cleaning up.
o ISPs get overloaded mailbox hosts and filled disk. Cleaning up
and helping customers requires a lot of human resources. In
fact, ISP mail servers have crashed by too much mail.
o While disks are unaccessible, either due to being filled or due
to "mail quota", important mail may be delayed or lost. Normally
this would not happen without notice, but if both the sender and
receiver hosts have their disk flooded, the mail being returned
may also fail, i.e. the email service may become less trustworthy
o Hosts used as unauthorized Mail Relays become overloaded.
Besides the technical implications, this too requires a lot of
human resources, cleaning up mail queues and taking care of
furious external users that were spammed through the Relay.
o The fight against spammers includes blocking their hosts (which
is described in this memo). However, there is a great risk that
Mail Relay hosts may be blocked too, even though they are also
victims. In the long run, this may cause Internet mail service to
o The common use of forged "MAIL From:" and "From:" addresses puts
the blame on innocent persons/hosts/organizations. This is bad
for reputations and may affect business relations.
Several of the methods described in this document increases the load
on several support systems to the email system itself. Those support
systems can be DNS, logging, databases with lists of local users,
authentication mechanisms and others. Implementing the methods
described in this document will, because of that, increase the risk
of a denial of service attack against the support system by sending
spam to a site. Logging facilities must for example be able to handle
more logging (what happens when the logfiles fills the disk?). DNS
servers and authentication mechanisms must be able to stand the load
of more lookups etc.
The functionality of the support systems during high load should be
carefully studied before implementing the methods described in this
The mail system should be carefully studied, e.g. how it behaves when
one or more of the support systems needed for a specific method
fails. A mail server MUST NOT respond with "Permanent Failure" (5xx)
if there is a temporary problem with one of its support systems.
This memo is the result of discussions in an ad hoc group of Swedish
ISPs and Universities. Without any hope on mentioning everyone we
simply give the domain names here: algonet.se, global-ip.net, pi.se,
swip.net, telia.net, udac.se; chalmers.se, sunet.se, umu.se, and
We want to acknowledge valuable input and suggestions from Andras
Salamon, John Myers, Bob Flandrena, Dave Presotto, Dave Kristol,
Donald Eastlake, Ned Freed, Keith Moore and Paul Hoffman.
Finally many thanks to Harald Alvestrand and Patrik Faltstrom, both
for useful comments and for their support and guidance through the
 Postel, J., "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol", STD 10, RFC 821,
 Crocker, D., "Standard for the format of ARPA Internet text
messages", STD 11, RFC 822, August 1982.
 Braden, R., "Requirements for Internet hosts - application and
support", STD 3, RFC 1123, October 1989.
 Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement
Level", BCP 14, RFC 2119, March 1997.
 Mockapetris, P., "Domain Names - Concepts and Facilities", STD
13, RFC 1034, November 1987.
 Mockapetris, P., "Domain Names - Implementation and
Specifications", STD 13, RFC 1035, November 1987.
 Eastlake, D. and C. Kaufman, "Domain Name System Security
Extensions", RFC 2065, January 1997.
 sendmail Home Page. http://www.sendmail.org
 Gellens, R. and J. Klensin "Message Submission", RFC 2476,
 Myers, J., "SMTP Service Extension for Authentication", Work in
* Spam (R) (capitalized) is a registered trademark of a meat
product made by Hormel. Use of the term spam (uncapitalized) in
the Internet community comes from a Monty Python sketch and is
almost Internet folklore. The term spam is usually pejorative,
however this is not in any way intended to describe the Hormel
Computer Communications Group
Chalmers University of Technology
SE-412 96 Gothenburg, SWEDEN,
Phone: +46 31 772 5913
FAX: +46 31 772 5922
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