Secondary Mail Records Invite Spam

Many companies are locked in a death struggle with spam. Unfortunately, a simple
error in your e-mail setup can allow spam to flood your inbox almost unchallenged.

I found this out the hard way, although the solution quickly became obvious.
Fortunately, it’s something that almost every company can easily fix, in
case the problem is affecting you.

If you have your own Internet domain name, or your company runs an e-mail server,
this applies to you. If not, you probably know someone who could use the information

Secondary MX Records Rear Their Heads

I’m currently involved in a major project that involves hands-on testing of numerous
hardware-based antispam appliances. The full results will be posted at
on Jan. 26, 2006.

Meanwhile, you may be able to eliminate a lot of the spam your company receives
by taking advantage of a little-known back door that I unwittingly stumbled across but that
spammers are all too familiar with.

Here’s the concept in a nutshell: Every Internet domain name that accepts e-mail must post
information called an MX record (Mail Exchanger record). The MX record lets any mail server in the world know where
to send messages addressed to, say,
[email protected]

It’s common for companies to post a record for a second server as well. This server
is said to have a
secondary MX record.
If the primary mail server is down or too busy to
accept messages, the secondary server
will be contacted instead by machines trying to send mail. The secondary server will accept the messages and
eventually route them to the
primary server when it’s once again available. (For technical details, see this

Sendmail tutorial

Now that you know the basics, you’ll be able to see how spam can pour in if
all of this isn’t properly set up.

Opening the Back Door to Spam

I run my own mail server, which sits on a machine called
("Northwind" is a dummy name that Microsoft
commonly uses in demos.) My server uses a static IP address of,
which we’ll call 50 for short. By the way, I’m not telling you any confidential
information here. Anyone on the Internet can ping my server and see all of this in
plain sight.

Laying out a plan to test antispam appliances, a developer who works in my company decided to
assign each device, one at a time, to a second IP address. We duly changed our
primary MX record to that second address: (Let’s call this
) Within a few days, every mail server on the Internet had cleared the old
number out of its cache and was sending our e-mail to the new number.

At this point, any antispam appliance being tested on our 51 address
would do its thing, quarantining messages judged to be spam. It would then route
the remaining good mail to our real mail server on the 50 address. So
far, so good.

Unfortunately, my developer had innocently posted the 50 address of the
real mail server as a secondary MX record. Big mistake. More spam than we’d ever
seen started pouring in.

The spammers were working the angles like this:

Primary mail server.
Spammers were sending messages to numerous different e-mail addresses, most of them nonexistent,
via our primary MX record. Since the primary MX record was now an antispam
appliance we were testing, this spam was mostly detected by the appliance and blocked.

Secondary mail server.
Since the spam hadn’t been delivered to the primary MX record, spam servers
simply looked up our secondary MX record and delivered the messages there. The
real mail server at 50 readily accepted the messages, since the antispam
appliance at 51 had been circumvented.

Old subdomain names.
As a result, we quickly deleted 50 as a secondary MX record. Mail servers
should then try to send mail only to our primary MX record at 51, where
our antispam appliance operates. But many spam servers simply
clung to the fully qualified
name of our mail server, Northwind. The spam servers continued sending spam
directly to the machine at that subdomain name — ignoring the Internet mail
protocol, which establishes the MX record as the standard.

A Fast Fix to a Frustrating Problem

Prior to our latest device tests, our mail server had been defended by no antispam appliance.
We had configured it to avoid most spam by rejecting any mail sent to nonexistent addresses. It
had also been told to automatically drop connections from known spam servers found on’s

SBL+XBL block list. This reduced the spam we received to manageable levels.

Now that our mail server was on a separate IP address from whatever antispam
appliance was currently being tested, however, stronger measures were needed. If
your company has a secondary MX record pointing to a backup mail server, you may need to
take the following steps, just as we did:

Delete the secondary MX record.
It’s usually not necessary for smaller companies to post a secondary MX record these days,
with a mail server that’s at all reliable. Servers that send Internet mail will generally
re-try a down server for up to 72 hours before giving up. Unless your mail
server conks out for days at a time, these re-tries should be sufficient for you
not to miss any mail, even if you have brief outages.

Protect your secondaries.
If your company truly does have redundant mail servers, go ahead and post
secondary MX records for them. Any secondary machine, though, must have antispam
protection that’s just as strong as the primary machine’s.

Block inbound mail except from your filter. We configured our
firewall to accept e-mail connections only from the antispam appliance at

51. Doing this clobbered the spam servers that were "remembering" our
mail server’s IP address and subdomain name (after its secondary MX record was
deleted). Good mail servers observed the standard Internet protocol and sent
mail through
the primary MX record. Spam servers, which don’t follow
the rules, couldn’t get in through the back door.


With all of the obscure conventions and jargon of the Internet mail system, it’s
not surprising that mail servers can get set up wrong. If that’s the case in
your company, spammers are happy to drive right through the hole and deliver plenty
of junk to your inboxes.

An Executive Tech update on “Fixing Elections”

I wrote on

Dec. 20, 2005, that two Florida counties had scrapped Diebold-brand electronic
vote-counting equipment after computer experts found that results could be
changed without detection. I noted later in that article, "Diebold memory cards
became an issue in Ohio after the 2004 Presidential election. Secretary of State
Kenneth Blackwell ordered the cards and other election records sealed from
public inspection until after the state’s electors were sworn in."

On Dec. 21, Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State, e-mailed
me, saying, “Diebold electronic voting machines were NOT in use in Ohio during the
2004 election. Further, the story you referenced relates to Ohio law requiring
ballots be sealed for a period of 11-15 days after an election to allow for the
arrival of overseas absentee ballots. (Please see Ohio Revised Code
This process does not relate to ‘electors’ or the Electoral College.”

I respectfully disagree with these statements.

• According to a
by, a national nonprofit organization that
advocates reliable vote counting methods, Diebold election equipment was in use
in the 2004 elections in Ohio’s Lucas and Hardin Counties and possibly others.
Additional counties used electronic equipment, including memory cards, from
Triad Governmental Systems and other vendors. At least 41 of Ohio’s 88 counties
adopted Diebold electronic voting equipment prior to the state’s 2005 elections.

The Dayton Daily News and other
news outlets reported on Dec. 12, 2004, that
election records had been sealed by the Ohio Secretary of State. This was 40
days after the Presidential election, long after the normal 11-to-15-day period.
The Daily News reporter wrote: "This period usually lasts about 10 days after
the election, but was being extended because an official recount is under way in
the state, according to Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo." The final
determination of contests for Presidential electors was on Dec. 7, 2004, based
on federal law, and Presidential electors voted in each state on Dec. 13, 2004

Bob Fitrakis, an Ohio attorney who formerly was involved in litigation with the
Secretary of State, said in an interview regarding Diebold election services, "GEMS, which is Diebold software, was
used to count votes on equipment in about half the counties." Fitrakis edits the

Columbus Free Press

I would also like to acknowledge the research assistance provided by Mark
Crispin Miller, the author of Fooled Again, an
October 2005 book that criticizes election
practices observed in Ohio and other U.S. states in the 2004 elections.

In addition to writing a column for JupiterWeb’s Datamation, where this column first appeared, Brian Livingston is the editor of and the co-author of “Windows Me Secrets” and nine other books. Send story ideas to him via his contact page.

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