Phil Pennock edited this page Feb 6, 2013 · 2 revisions
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This section contains tricks to identify spam based on the HELO message.

The examples below use "drop"; you may prefer to use "deny", in which case you might also consider adding something like

    condition = ${if eq{$sender_helo_name}{}}
    message   = HELO required before MAIL

to your acl_smtp_mail.

Invalid HELO

What is valid?

Valid HELOs are according to RFC2821

  • [<ipv4-address>]
  • [<ipv4-address>] optional arbitrary information, maybe with a finishing dot
  • [IPv6:<ipv6-address>]
  • [IPv6:<ipv6-address>] optional arbitrary information

RFC2821 is ambiguous about the "optional arbitrary information" after address literals; it says

In situations in which the SMTP client system does not have a meaningful domain name ... the client
SHOULD send an address literal ... optionally followed by information that will help to identify
the client system.

However it later goes on to specify that the syntax is (in part):

ehlo            = "EHLO" SP Domain CRLF
helo            = "HELO" SP Domain CRLF

Domain = (sub-domain 1*("." sub-domain)) / address-literal

address-literal = "[" IPv4-address-literal /
                      IPv6-address-literal /
                      General-address-literal "]"
      ; See section 4.1.3

which leaves no scope for "optional arbitrary information" tagged onto the end of the HELO.

Invalid HELOs

If you want to strictly apply the RFCs then all other HELOs are invalid. Here follow some recipes for detecting and blocking some of the more common types of invalid HELO.

HELO is an open Proxy or Subnet

Type: syntax error

drop   message        = Open Proxy in HELO/EHLO (HELO was $sender_helo_name)
       condition      = ${if eqi {$sender_helo_name} {$sender_host_address}{no}{yes}}
       condition      = ${if isip {$sender_helo_name} {yes}{no}}
       delay          = 45s

HELO is an IP address

Type: syntax error

    condition   = ${if isip{$sender_helo_name}}
    message     = Access denied - Invalid HELO name (See RFC2821 4.1.3)

A plain IP address is not allowed. It needs to be an address literal, i.e. an IP address enclosed in [ ].

HELO contain a IP part

Type: syntax error

drop   message        = Helo name contains a ip address (HELO was $sender_helo_name) and not is valid
       condition      = ${if match{$sender_helo_name}{\N((\d{1,3}[.-]\d{1,3}[.-]\d{1,3}[.-]\d{1,3})|([0-9a-f]{8})|([0-9A-F]{8}))\N}{yes}{no}}
       condition      = ${if match {${lookup dnsdb{>: defer_never,ptr=$sender_host_address}}}{$sender_helo_name}{no}{yes}}
       delay          = 45s

The helo name contain x-x-x-x or x.x.x.x in name and name is fake.

HELO contain my domains, subdomains or my interface by dns lookup

Type: syntax error

drop   message        = No you are not ME or OURS (HELO was $sender_helo_name and equal my local domains or my domains relay)   
       condition      = ${if match_domain{$sender_helo_name}{+local_domains:+alias_domains:+relay_to_domains}{yes}{no}}
       delay          = 45s
drop   message        = No you are not Me or OURS (HELO was $sender_helo_name and the subdomain is my domain ${extract{-3}{.}{$sender_helo_name}}.${extract{-2}{.}{$sender_helo_name}}.${extract{-1}{.}{$sender_helo_name}})
       condition      = ${if match_domain{${extract{-3}{.}{$sender_helo_name}}.${extract{-2}{.}{$sender_helo_name}}.${extract{-1}{.}{$sender_helo_name}}}{+local_domains:+alias_domains:+relay_to_domains}{yes}{no}}
       delay          = 45s
drop   message        = No you are not ME or OURS (HELO was $sender_helo_name and equal my interface hostname)
       condition      = ${if !def:interface_address {no}{yes}}
       condition      = ${if match_ip{$interface_address}{${lookup dnsdb{>: defer_never,a=$sender_helo_name}}}{yes}{no}}
       delay          = 45s

HELO not contain a full host (ex:

Type: syntax error

drop   message        = Invalid domain or IP given in HELO/EHLO (HELO was $sender_helo_name)
       condition      = ${if match{$sender_helo_name}{.+\\\..+\\\..+}{no}{yes}}
       !authenticated = *
       !senders       = wildlsearch;/etc/exim4/lst/skp_helodot
       !hosts         = +ignore_defer : +ignore_unknown : +relay_from_hosts : net-iplsearch;/etc/exim4/lst/skp_heloadsl
       condition      = ${if match_ip{$sender_host_address}{${lookup dnsdb{>: defer_lax,a=${lookup dnsdb{>: defer_lax,mxh=$sender_address_domain}}}}}{no}{yes}}
       delay          = 45s

To skip check, put a hosts in skp_heloadsl list. Skip if is a MX of domain or SPF (if exists). Put this in check_mail.

HELO is neither FQDN nor address literal

Type: syntax error

    # Required because "[IPv6:<address>]" will have no .s
    condition   = ${if match{$sender_helo_name}{\N^\[\N}{no}{yes}}
    condition   = ${if match{$sender_helo_name}{\N\.\N}{no}{yes}}
    message     = Access denied - Invalid HELO name (See RFC2821

Neither an address literal nor something containing dots.

    condition   = ${if match{$sender_helo_name}{\N\.$\N}}
    message     = Access denied - Invalid HELO name (See RFC2821

Something ending with a dot.

DISCUSSION: If I understand rfc2821 4.1.3 correctly, helo might end with a dot (see examples above).

    condition   = ${if match{$sender_helo_name}{\N\.\.\N}}
    message     = Access denied - Invalid HELO name (See RFC2821

Something containing two subsequent dots. Wouldn't be good for FQDN nor IP address.

HELO is my hostname

Type: forgery

Sometimes spammers impersonate the hostname of the MX they are delivering their junk to. This ACL drops those connections. Since only spam tools seem to use such an HELO, this ACL is pretty safe.

drop  message   = "REJECTED - Bad HELO - Host impersonating [$sender_helo_name]"
      condition = ${if match{$sender_helo_name}{$primary_hostname}}

HELO is one of my Domains

Type: forgery

Sometimes spammers will try to send spam by impersonating one of our domains in the HELO. This ACL assumes that you have a domainlist called all_mail_handled_locally.

Be sure to use this AFTER your authenticated SMTP and other bless email that you will forward for, since some mail clients use the domain part of the senders address as the HELO string.

drop  message = "REJECTED - Bad HELO - Host impersonating [$sender_helo_name]"
      condition = ${if match_domain{$sender_helo_name}{+all_mail_handled_locally}{true}{false}}

(There is a small chance that mail which uses this kind of HELO is actually valid; e.g. company might have a web server whose canonical hostname is If you handle mail for that domain, then the web server could legitimately connect to your mail server and say "HELO". However that is pretty theoretical; I've never seen that actually happen in practice.)

HELO is faked interface address

Type: forgery

Some spammers put the server's interface address they connect to in their HELO, maybe asuming it is whitelisted or something.

drop condition = ${if eq{[$interface_address]}{$sender_helo_name}}
     message   = $interface_address is _my_ address

Note: If you are running your mail server behind NAT, you should replace $interface_address with your external IP address.

Note: If you have more than one ip-addresses on your's interface use @[] instead of \$interface_address, full acl will be:

drop    message     = Bad helo name
        condition   = ${if  \
                         and{    \
                             {isip {$sender_helo_name}}  \
                             {match_ip{$sender_helo_name}{@[]}}  \
                         }{yes}{no}  \