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RFC 2505 - Anti-Spam Recommendations for SMTP MTAs

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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 Notice

   Copyright (C) The Internet Society (1999).  All Rights Reserved.


   This memo gives a number of implementation recommendations for SMTP,
   [1], MTAs (Mail Transfer Agents, e.g. sendmail, [8]) 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.

1. Introduction

   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.

1.1. Background

   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.

1.2. Scope

   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.

1.3. Terminology

   Throughout this memo we will use the terminology of RFC2119, [4]:

   o   "MUST"

       This word or the adjective "REQUIRED" means that the item is an
       absolute requirement.

   o   "SHOULD"

       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.

   o   "MAY"

       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, [5], and RFC1035, [6].

   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, [7], 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 [1] for a discussion:

   o   5xx
       is a Permanent Negative Completion reply (Fatal Error) and
       results in the mail transfer being terminated and the mail
       returned to sender.

   o   4xx
       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.

   o   2xx
       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.

2. Recommendations

   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: <user@my.local.dom.ain>".

   7a) SHOULD be able to refuse mail from a specific "MAIL From:"
       user, <foo@domain.example>.

   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
       other means).

   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
   <spammer@domain.example> 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:

       "/c=us/admd= /prmd=xyz/dd.rfc-822=user(a)final/"@x400-gateway

   Another example involves DECnet MAIL-11, which can have addresses in
   the form:


   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.*,,

   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, [2], and required in RFC1123, [3]). 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, [2], 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
   was created.

   These recommendations are deliberately stronger than RFC1123, [3],
   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, [3]).

   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
   their origin.

   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 ( or on IP addresses with a
   prefix length (,

   It is also RECOMMENDED that these decision rules can be combined to
   form a flexible list of accept/refuse/accept/refuse, e.g:

       accept   host.domain.example
       refuse   *.domain.example

   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: <user@my.local.dom.ain>"

   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: <user@my.local.dom.ain>"

   The MTA MUST NOT refuse "MAIL From: <user@my.local.dom.ain>".

   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: <user@my.local.dom.ain>" 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).
       <user1@my.local.dom.ain> sends to <user2@external.example> and
       that mail gets forwarded back to <user2@my.local.dom.ain>, e.g.
       since <user2> has moved to my.local.dom.ain and has a .forward
       file at external.example.

   o   Mailing lists.
       RFC1123, [3], 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: <user@my.local.dom.ain>" 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 (foo@domain.example) 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: <user@my.local.dom.ain>"

   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
       particular user/host.

   For sending mail, this has to be done by throttling the TCP
   connection to set the acceptable output data rate, e.g. reduce the
   "write()" frequency.

   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: <fo0bar@domain.example>

   and/or malicious users

       MAIL From: <I.am.unknown.to.you.he.he@domain.example>

   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, [1].
   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".


   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
   additional information.

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, [9], has
   recently been defined.

   Or, we could note that when the SMTP Authentication work, [10], 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
   centrally decided).

   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: <usr@spam.example>
       S  250 <usr@spam.example>... Sender ok

       C  RCPT To: <usr@domain.example>
       S  250 <usr@domain.example>... Recipient ok
       C  RCPT To: <foo@domain.example>
       S  451 <foo@domain.example>... Denied due to spam list
       C  RCPT To: <bar@domain.example>
       S  550 <bar@domain.example>... 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, [10], 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
       than before.

   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.

5. Acknowledgements

   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
   IETF process.

6. References

   [1] Postel, J., "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol", STD 10, RFC 821,
       August 1982.

   [2] Crocker, D., "Standard for the format of ARPA Internet text
       messages", STD 11, RFC 822, August 1982.

   [3] Braden, R., "Requirements for Internet hosts - application and
       support", STD 3, RFC 1123, October 1989.

   [4] Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement
       Level", BCP 14, RFC 2119, March 1997.

   [5] Mockapetris, P., "Domain Names - Concepts and Facilities", STD
       13, RFC 1034, November 1987.

   [6] Mockapetris, P., "Domain Names - Implementation and
       Specifications", STD 13, RFC 1035, November 1987.

   [7] Eastlake, D. and C. Kaufman, "Domain Name System Security
       Extensions", RFC 2065, January 1997.

   [8] sendmail Home Page. http://www.sendmail.org

   [9] Gellens, R. and J. Klensin "Message Submission", RFC 2476,
       September 1998.

   [10] 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

Editor's Address

   Gunnar Lindberg
   Computer Communications Group
   Chalmers University of Technology
   SE-412 96 Gothenburg, SWEDEN,

   Phone: +46 31 772 5913
   FAX:   +46 31 772 5922
   EMail: lindberg@cdg.chalmers.se

Full Copyright Statement

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   The limited permissions granted above are perpetual and will not be
   revoked by the Internet Society or its successors or assigns.

   This document and the information contained herein is provided on an


User Contributions:

MrElvey:  The "significant consequences and enforcement against violators" that you attribute to block lists do not appear to have ended spam.  The main effect of a blocklist is that it blocks receipt of spam.  That's well worth doing.  Blocklists aren't really an RFC 2505-related topic, anyway.  "But please note:" in 1.2 is worth considering, too.

Comment about this RFC, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: