Email: Vulnerable To Blacklist

This morning I received an email informing me that the Insanity Radio mail server had been added to two email blacklists.

*Groan* go most system administrators. This usually means one of our users’ has had their email account compromised, probably by using a weak password. Most of the time, this is probably right. However, the reasons behind this were more alarming than you’d consider, and actually point to a vulnerability within most Postfix/SpamAssassin set-ups.

A bit of background: Postfix is a mail server. SpamAssassin is a server which is fed emails and responds with a score on how spammy the email is. Combine the two and you have a pretty good way to filter out spam. However, this is where it gets a bit more tricky.

Postfix has a concept of filters – a way of running email through a bit of code. There are two main types, before-queue and after-queue. before-queue will apply the filter before the email is accepted by the server, and after-queue will apply after the email is accepted.

The problem is that most SpamAssassin set-ups work after-queue. This means that your incoming mail server will accept spam emails before it scans them. If it rejects an email later on, it will send a response to the sender saying it bounced, and why.

You’ve probably seen emails from “MAILER DAEMON” saying stuff like “The email you tried to send your thing to doesn’t exist”. It’s pretty much the same.

Now, there’s actually a surprisingly easy way to exploit this. This could be used by an attacker to quite comfortably destroy the reputation of a mail server. Scary, huh? The attack can be done in a few simple steps.

  1. Connect to your target mail server.
  2. Send the most horrible spammy email you can, one that checks all the boxes on SpamAssassin
  3. Set the envelope address to a honeypot address
  4. Rinse & Repeat

The mail server will send a bounce email to the honeypot address, and will get added to an email blacklist as a result.

The best solution is just to install amavisd, and just let that handle interconnecting to SpamAssassin.