Reduce spam by enforcing valid standards

One of the most effective anti-spam measures one can implement is to enforce valid use of SMTP and other standards. Spam clients are interested in sending messages as quickly as possible, and so usually don't bother with actually implementing standards correctly. In this post I shall describe the various checks which can be used, show how to implement these checks in Postfix, and describe how to ensure that your mail server passes these checks when sending mail.

Reverse DNS Entries

RFC 1912 states that "every Internet-reachable host should have a name" and "make sure your PTR and A records match". This can be checked by performing a Forward Confirmed reverse DNS lookup1. This check can be done before even accepting the TCP connection, which means the mail server's existence isn't even revealed to rejected clients.

Postfix: Add reject_unknown_client_hostname to smtpd_client_restrictions.
Passing: Ensure that your mail server has matching PTR and A records.

HELO/EHLO Hostname

RFC 2821 states that "a client SHOULD start an SMTP session by issuing the EHLO command". Almost all SMTP client implementations do do this, and so we can require the use of HELO/EHLO.

Postfix: Set smtpd_helo_required = yes.

RFC 2821 states that "the argument field [of the HELO/EHLO command] contains the fully-qualified domain name of the SMTP client if one is available". Since external mail servers have to be Internet reachable this is a requirement, and can be checked by looking up the name in DNS2.

Postfix: Add reject_invalid_helo_hostname, reject_non_fqdn_helo_hostname and reject_unknown_helo_hostname to smtpd_helo_restrictions.
Passing: Ensure that your mail server is configured to send a fully qualified hostname which exists in DNS.

If there is only one mail server (and possibly even if there are multiple servers), SMTP clients should not be using the server's hostname as the HELO hostname. Clients which do so can therefore be rejected.

Postfix: Add check_helo_access hash:/etc/postfix/helo_access to smtpd_helo_restrictions. Use helo_access as a template for /etc/postfix/helo_access, and run postmap /etc/postfix/helo_access afterwards.

Originator Address

The originator (MAIL FROM) address is where error reports will be sent, and therefore should be a valid address. The only thing which can be checked though is that the address is fully qualified and that the domain exists.

Postfix: Add reject_non_fqdn_sender and reject_unknown_sender_domain to smtpd_sender_restrictions.
Passing: Ensure that your mail server only emits fully qualified addresses. This should happen by default, except possibly for mail submitted with sendmail.

Recipient Addresses

Unless the mail server is a relay or backup MX, it should already only be accepting addresses for which it is the destination. If it is a relay or backup MX the same checks as above can be done.

Postfix: Add reject_non_fqdn_recipient and reject_unknown_recipient_domain to smtpd_recipient_restrictions.

One other check has to do with multiple recipients for bounced mail. Error reports for bounced mail uses a null originator address, and should only have one recipient.

Postfix: Add reject_multi_recipient_bounce to smtpd_data_restrictions.


Unless the client explicitly requests pipelining (as described in RFC 1854), the SMTP conversation must occur in lock step (i.e. the client must wait for a response from the server before sending the next command). Since spam clients are trying to send messages as quickly as possible it is likely that they do not adhere to this requirement.

Postfix: Add reject_unauth_pipelining to smtpd_data_restrictions.

RFC 2821 specifies that the server must send the first message after the connection is established. A neat trick is to delay this initial message to catch out clients which don't wait for it.

Postfix: Add sleep 1, reject_unauth_pipelining to smtpd_client_restrictions. This also requires smtpd_delay_reject = no (explained below).


Since these measures will reject valid mail from misconfigured mail servers, I like to keep an eye on rejections via logcheck. However, some of these measures by their very nature reject the client before it's even sent the originator and recipient addresses, which makes identification of valid mail difficult. Postfix therefore has a feature which delays rejection until after the recipient addresses have been sent. This is enabled by default, but can be disabled by setting smtpd_delay_reject = no.

  1. A reverse DNS lookup is done on the client's IP address, and a forward lookup then done on the resulting hostname. This forward lookup should yield the client's IP address. 

  2. Note that there is no required link between the HELO hostname and the client's PTR record. 

Gmail-like mail setup

I have been using Gmail for a while now, and really think that it's about the best email provider out there. I recently moved my mail over from Google Apps to my own server, but I wanted the major features that I liked. I've always used a desktop mail client and used POP3 and SMTP to receive and send mail.

These are the features I particularly like:

  1. Secure access with TLS/SSL
  2. Outgoing SMTP with authentication
  3. Messages sent via SMTP are automatically stored in the mailbox
  4. Messages downloaded via POP3 are still stored on the server
  5. IMAP and Web access

I therefore set out to recreate this setup as closely as possible. The first two are satisfied by a standard Postfix setup with TLS and SMTP AUTH. The last one is done with Dovecot and Roundcube.

To automatically store sent messages on the server, I used Postfix's sender_bcc_maps to BCC messages I send to myself, and the following Procmail recipe to move these messages to the Sent folder.

* ^Return-Path.*

To make POP3 access independent from IMAP, I first configured Dovecot to use a different mail location for each as follows.

protocol imap {
    mail_location = maildir:~/Maildir
protocol pop3 {
    mail_location = /var/mail/%u

I then used the following Procmail recipe to send incoming messages to both locations.


At the moment this is only setup for my user, but it should be possible to do it for all users by creating a global procmailrc and telling Postfix to deliver all mail using Procmail. This is working fairly well. The only part missing is that Gmail can archive or mark messages as read when they are downloaded via POP3, whereas in my setup POP3 and IMAP are completely independent.

Postfix with SPF and DKIM

As most people know, email is horribly insecure. It is trivial to forge the From address in emails since there is no authentication when sending1. This means that one cannot trust the From address, and also that people can forge messages from your address. In order to address this a number of new schemes have been developed. These include SPF, DomainKeys, DKIM and SenderID. All of these aim to verify that mail is actually from the address it appears to be from. SPF and SenderID do so by restricting which hosts are allowed to send messages from a certain domain, while DomainKeys and DKIM use cryptographic signatures.

Unfortunately all of these schemes have problems due to the fact that they are an addition to the existing mail system. SPF and SenderID prevent plain forwarding (requiring additional schemes like SRS or whitelisting of forwarders), and MTAs and mailing lists which modify messages break DomainKey and DKIM signatures. Despite these issues, email forgery is an issue which needs to be addressed, and we cannot wait for a perfect solution before adopting it. Some major mail providers (including Gmail and Yahoo) are already implementing these schemes.

I have therefore configured SPF and DKIM in my Postfix mail setup. My SPF policy allows mail from my server and SOFTFAILs all other hosts, and all outgoing mail is signed with DKIM. Incoming mail is checked for SPF and DKIM, but aren't discared even if the checks fail. I will be keeping an eye on things and will revise my policy when I think it safe.

SPF Configuration

To create an SPF policy, add a TXT record to your DNS records according to the SPF syntax. The policy should authorise all hosts from which you send mail. (Mine simply authorises my mail server since I send all mail through it.) You also need a policy for the hostname presented by your mail server in its HELO/EHLO command. You should also create policies for all subdomains which aren't used for mail.

To check SPF records for incoming mail, I used the SPF policy daemon for Postfix. It is packaged for Ubuntu as postfix-policyd-spf-python. Simply follow the instructions in /usr/share/doc/postfix-policyd-spf-python/README.Debian2, and set defaultSeedOnly = 0 in the configuration file if you don't wish to reject mail which fails the test. Remember to whitelist any servers which forward mail to you (i.e. you have another address which gets forwarded to your mail server), unless they implement SRS3.

DKIM Configuration

To sign and check DKIM I use DKIMproxy. There isn't an Ubuntu package so I installed it from source. The instructions on the site are good, and include details for Postfix. You will need to generate a key to sign with and publish it in DNS, and then configure Postfix to sign outgoing messages and validate incoming messages. DKIMproxy won't discard messages with invalid signatures by default.

DKIM includes a component called ADSP which allows domains to publish their signing policy. The strongest policy states that all messages are signed with DKIM and any messages without signatures should be discarded. This will allow mail servers to reject messages not sent through your mail server. However, the standard is not finalised yet, and issues regarding mailing lists still need to be addressed.

  1. Yes, I know about SMTP authentication, but people can simply use a relay. 

  2. Just watch out for the location of the configuration file -- the README uses a different location to the package. 

  3. Gmail doesn't implement SRS as such, but does use a compatible rewriting scheme. 

Syndicate content