Hardly a week goes by without someone contacting me about a problem with their email. Pretty much every time they’re just doing something wrong.
“Your message bounced back because you spelled your friends name wrong.”
I’ve learned to say it without sounding judgemental; or I think I have. Everyone’s done it, after all. It’d be nice if people checked before blaming the mail server, but so would world peace and I’m not hopeful I’ll see either.
But last week was a bit different. Someone got a bounce-back after emailing email@example.com, but the address in the bounce was firstname.lastname@example.org. I know what you’re thinking; same as me. Someone had manage to type their address wrong in their iPad and the replies were to somewhere silly. (Why’s it always Apple users)
Not so this time. After more complaints I checked TalkTalk’s email server. First thing to check is the MX records. Hang on, there aren’t any!
An domain MX record simply tells other mail servers where to send email for that domain. In the absence of an MX record, a mail server is supposed to send email for a domain to it’s IP address (A record). Not everyone knows. this. As a final roll of the dice, it’s allowed to send it to a domain name’s alias (CNAME).
It turns out that talktalk.net lacks an a record, and it’s CNAME is www.talktalk.co.uk. This kinda makes sense – anyone going to the obsolete talktalk.net web site will end up at www.talktalk.co.uk. Great for web users, but it also means that all the email going to talktalk.net customers will be directed to their mail server. Not cool. Unsurprisingly their web server didn’t know what to make of it.
Was this something weird with my DNS? Nope. I tried it multiple DNS servers on several networks, and Google’s 18.104.22.168 service with exactly the same results. Definitely wrong; and it was a Saturday so there was no one at the company to TalkTalk to. I sent an email to the address their tech support suggested, and got a snotty “we’re not talking to you because you’re not a customer” response. Er, no. At this stage it was on behalf on an ISP trying to resolve a serious problem for their customers. How dumb can you get?
Now TalkTalk is an interesting company. It’s basically a mishmash of many ISPs purchased over time by Charles Dunstone’s Carphone Warehouse. These include Opal, Pipex, Nildram, and OneTel, AOL, Virgin’s ADSL business. The group has not been without its problems, including being slammed by the ASA and Ofcom for not delivering what it promised, and let’s not forget the famous 2015 data heist, malware infected home routers, slamming, and customer privacy concerns (Phorm, URL harvesting with Huawei and so on).
However, a big worry is how these disparate ISPs have been on-boarded to the TalkTalk communication bemouth. The answer is probably “badly”, and woe betide anyone on a legacy service such as an @talktalk.net email address. We had the same problem a year or so ago with @onetel.co.uk emails; TalkTalk had kindly left the service running but had no way of known which customers had left and who was using it for free. It was twenty years before they decided to pull the plug on it and see who squealed.
Naturally I phone around about the talktalk.net MX records to see what other were experiencing, and the consensus was that they’d decide to pull the plug on these legacy accounts too.
Of course, having bad/no MX records in your DNS doesn’t cause an overnight meltdown. DNS entries are often cached, and drop off senders’ servers over time. To add to the confusion, many high volume providers trying to save a few quid don’t even bother to check MX records when sending – they simply use the last known good destination server and “do something” when it fails to connect for a period. Freemail users may not have noticed a problem corresponding with their chums on TalkTalk.net – at least not for a while.
So what did I do? The user was convinced they were infected with malware (as they do) so for a quiet life I faked up the last known good talktalk.net zone in a local DNS server and sat back waiting for the actual server to be turned off. But a week later they’d fixed it; so that’s alright then. For now. I guess legacy customers of the worst domestic broadband provider in the UK (consistently, along with Virgin Media and Plusnet and Vodafone, according to Which? Surveys and Ofcom rankings for customer service) aren’t going to heed any warnings about shifting their email service elsewhere before it’s too late.