Reply-To: gmail spam and Spamassassin

Over the last few months I’ve noticed huge increase is spam with a “Reply To:” field set to a gmail address. What the miscreants are doing is hijacking a legitimate mail server (usually a Microsoft one) and pumping out spam advertising a service of some kind. These missives only work if the mark is able to reply, and as even a Microsoft server will be locked down sooner or later, so they’ll never get the reply.

The reason for sending this way is, of course, spam from a legitimate mail server isn’t going to be blacklisted or blocked. SPF and other flags will be good. So these spams are likely to land in inboxes, and a few marks will reply based on the law of numbers.

To get the reply they’re using the email “Reply-To:” field, which will direct the reply to an alternative address – one which Google is happy to supply them for nothing.

The obvious way of detecting this would be to examine the Reply-To: field, and if it’s gmail whereas the original sender isn’t, flag it as highly suspect.

I was about to write a Spamassassin rule to do just this, when I discovered there is one already – and it’s always been there. The original idea came from Henrik Krohns in 2009, but it’s time has now definitely arrived. However, in a default install, it’s not enabled – and for a good reason (see later). The rule you want is FREEMAIL_FORGED_REPLYTO, and it’s found in

Enabling FREEMAIL_FORGED_REPLYTO in Spamassassin

If you check you’ll see the rules require Mail::SpamAssassin::Plugin::FreeMail, The plugin is part of the standard install, but it’s very likely disabled. To enable this (or any other plugin) edit the init.pre file in /usr/local/etc/mail/spamassassin/ Just add the following to the end of the file:

# Freemail checks
loadplugin Mail::SpamAssassin::Plugin::FreeMail
Please generate and paste your ad code here. If left empty, the ad location will be highlighted on your blog pages with a reminder to enter your code. Mid-Post

You’ll then need to add a list of what you consider to be freemail accounts in your (/usr/local/etc/mail/spamassassin/ As an example:

freemail_domains aol.* gmail.* gmail.*.* hotmail.* hotmail.*.*

Note the use of ‘*’ as a wildcard. ‘?’ matches a single character, but neither match a ‘.’. It’s not a regex! There’s also a setting “freemail_whitelist”, and other things documented in

Then restart spamd (FreeBSD: service spamd restart) and you’re away. Except…

The problem with this Rule

If you look at you’ll see the weighting is very low (currently 0.1). If this is such a good rule, why so little? The fact is that there’s a lot of spam appearing in this form, and it’s the best heuristic for detecting it, but it’s also going to lead to false positives in some cases.

Consider those silly “contact forms” beloved by PHP Web Developers. They send an email from a web server but with a “faked” reply address to the person filling in the form. This becomes indistinguishable from the heuristic used to spot the spammers.

If you know this is going to happen you can, of course add an exception. You can even have the web site use a local submission port and send it to a local mailbox without filtering. But in a commercial hosting environment this gets a bit complicated – you don’t know what Web Developers are doing. (How could you? They often don’t).

If you have control over your users, it’s probably safe to up the weighting. I’d say 3.0 is a good starting point. But it may be safer to leave it at 0.1 and examine the results for what would have been false positives.

BT Internet Mail Fail (again)

BT Internet’s email system is broken AGAIN. It rejects everything it gets as “spam” (554 Message rejected, policy ( – Your message looks like SPAM or has been reported as SPAM please read…)

Having checked against blacklists, and sent perfectly innocuous test text messages to friends account, it’s definitely busted.

My advice to anyone using BT Internet for important email is to get a proper account with a proper provider (or handle your email in-house if your name is not Fred and you don’t work from a shed).

M A G Airports web site exploitable for mailbombing attacks

Last July I was surprised to receive an email of “special offers” from Manchester Airport. I’ve only ever been to Manchester once, and I drove. It was actually sent to a random email address; was the company just sending out random spam?

I checked, and visiting their web site produced a JavaScript pop-up asking you to enter your email address to receive special offers. I wondered if I’d accidentally confirmed acceptance to be added to the wrong mailing list, so I checked. No. Apparently this sign-up doesn’t bother to confirm that you actually own the email addressed entered; it just starts spamming whoever you ask it to.

It got worse. A look at the code showed it was easy for someone to make a load of calls to their site and add as many bogus addresses as they liked at the rate of several every second.

And it gets even worse – a quick look at the sites for other airports operated by MAG had identical pop-up sign-ups (Stansted, Bournemouth and East Midlands).

Naturally I called them to let them know what a bunch of silly arses they were. After being passed around from one numpty to another, I was promised a call back. “Okay, but I’ll go public if you don’t bother”.

Guess what? That was last July and they haven’t bothered. They did, however, remove the pop-up box eventually. They didn’t disable it, however. The code is still there on a domain owned by MAG Airports, and you can still use it to do multiple sign-ups with no verification.

So what are they doing wrong? Two things:

  1. Who in their right mind would allow unlimited sign-ups to a newsletter without verifying that the owner of the email address actually wanted it? Were they really born yesterday? Even one of the MD’s kids writing their web site wouldn’t have made such an elementary mistake.
  2. Their cyber-security incident reporting mechanisms need a lot of work. Companies that don’t have a quick way of hearing about security problems are obviously not doing themselves or the public any favours.

One assumes that MAG Airports doesn’t have any meaningful cybersecurity department; nor any half-way competent web developers. I’d be delighted to hear from them otherwise.

In the meantime, if you want to add all your enemies to their spamming list, here’s the URL format to do it:

Okay, perhaps not but if it’s not fixed by the next time I’m speaking at a conference, it’s going on the demo list.


Has LinkedIn had its data blagged again?

This could very well be related to the breach that occurred in May, but it might be a new one.

This morning a trap email account, known only to me and LinkedIn, started to receive a lot of spam of a similar nature. This hasn’t happened before. For anyone else to be aware of this addresses existence it had to be stolen from me or from LinkedIn, or possibly by monitoring an ISP if not encrypted en-route. I’m pretty confident that it wasn’t stolen from me; the system it exists on is pretty secure and under my nose. As an added measure, all addresses are stored with additional traps that aren’t known to a third party, and if none of these is used its reasonable to assume that the data wasn’t pinched from me.

Monitoring an ISP is possible, but I don’t think it’s likely.

This means the address was probably stolen from LinkedIn. It’s hard to know for sure whether this was in May or later, but there was no indication it had gone missing until this morning so it’s worth of more investigation.

Has anyone else suddenly started receiving spam on a linkedin-specific address?

Google Drive Hacked to spew Spam

Early this morning (GMT) I intercepted emails trying to sell a Chinese business signage product that had been spammed to spambait addresses left on web pages. Nothing new there, but having analysed the source I discovered that the Google Drive “cloud” storage system was still being abused to sent them out. I saw the first such incident about a month ago.

Basically the crims are creating a Google Drive account and then sharing it with a large number of people using a custom message. The name of the file becomes the title, and the sales pitch goes in the body:

Dear Sirs,

From internet we know you are leading on AV/TV product reseller field.

Sysview is a digital signage software, capable change your existing smart TV to a digital signage . Sysview features following :

The only surprise about this is that no one has exploited it before. It’s going to be very difficult to filter out without hitting all Google could services, and Google’s “sign-up free without asking questions policy” is going to make it hard from them to tackle.

Come on Google! You’ve had at least a month to get this sorted, to my certain knowledge. Google could be forgiven for failing to secure the system against such abuse in the first place, but I’m not going to. This is a common sense failure.

BT Internet mail is broken – Deferred: 421 Too many messages ( from

When Yahoo ran BT Internet’s customer email for them, it wasn’t great. We all know they had problems coping with spammers hammering away trying to deliver scams and marketing messages to BT’s punters, putting the whole system in to paranoid anti-spam mode on occasions. But it could have been worse, and now it is.

Since Critical Path (now owned by Openwave Messaging) took over running the shambles in May 2013, they appear to have hit on the bright idea of not accepting more than 49 emails a day from any one server. What? Yes, you read that correctly. If the server tries to send message fifty it gets a delayed email response:

Deferred: 421 Too many messages ( from

Sendmail (or other normal MTA) will simply continue trying to send it for a week, but if you have more than fifty messages a day on average to BT punters the queue is never going to empty. And fifty messages isn’t a lot. Suppose you’re a company and someone wants their work emailed forward to BT Internet? That could easily be fifty for one luser. And if you’re an web host, one of your customers is probably going to want all the email for a domain to go to a address, and they’ll likely set it up without you even knowing about it.

This has being going on for over a year now, with a possible reduction in the limit last autumn. There was a theory going around that it would reject domains if the SPF record was inconclusive. Although SPF sounded like a good idea for the first five minutes, it’s rubbish when used as a naive check on mail that’s been forwarded.

I’ve been able to get some unsatisfactory information out of BT on this issue. Basically their policy is to “throttle” mail from an IP address if they think more than a certain proportion of it is spam, based on SPF records and suchlike. In the case of a user having all their mail forwarded to a BT Internet box, a high proportion of it is going to be spam; it’s inevitable. And a check of the SPF record is obviously going to fail (doah!)

BT luser forums are full of complaints about this, although the cause is misunderstood. Users get bounce messages, but it’s the server log that tells the whole picture, and as it’s often delayed they believe that a hokey “fix” has actually worked and others follow.

So what can be done about it? The obvious answer is to stop using BT Internet mail. They’ve shown a complete unwillingness to address this issue, and will doubtless make some excuse that most users are unaffected – that’s to say the other large ISPs and freemail services; direct business-to-BT Internet Luser is a small fraction. If that doesn’t work for you, the minimum you should do is ban anyone forwarding mail to through your servers. Then make sure that domains you host have the correct SPF records. If you don’t, and one exceeds the limit, the IP address will be blocked and prevent your other customers from using it too.

No one who knows anything about spam control will rely on SPF, of course. But if there is someone who knows what they’re doing at Openwave, their voices are clearly being ignored.

If you’re a BT customer and you use email, based on the fact this problem has gone unresolved for a year now, the only advice I can give is to move away. Which is inrtersting, because this April BT announced plans to charge their ex-punters 60 to keep their (broken) domain names – the same price as BT Internet’s broadband offering anyway. Done, you will be.


New mystery “Appear in Court” malware

In the early hours of the morning (BST) I intercepted a large number of emails of the “Appear in Court” variety, but unlike usual, these were not Microsoft documents but JavaScript (stored in a .ZIP file). They end in .doc.js, which means they obviously look odd.

I couldn’t resist running a few, to see what they did, and the answer is not much. They run cmd.exe and I’m pretty sure it does an egg hunt to find some code in core to execute, and it goes looking for DOCUME~1.DOC in various likely locations. But in my sandbox, it doesn’t get anywhere.

These are being spammed from clean IP addresses, no AV currently detects them by signature, so they’re going to get through. But what do they need to run, and what do they do if they succeed? Unfortunately I can’t stick around this morning to check further.

Spam from the Government Secure Internet

Well that’s what it looks like. Criminals apparently from Bangalore have been distributing loads of malware spams from addresses like Nich***.Davi**, and they’re getting through spam filters.

The messages continue:





Good afternoon

Please find attached your receipt, sent as requested.

Kind regards

(See attached file)

Fixed Penalty Office
Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency | The Ellipse, Padley Road, Swansea,
Phone: 0300 123 9000

Find out more about government services at

This email and any files transmitted with it are confidential and
intended solely for the use of the individual or entity to whom they are
addressed.  Any views or opinions presented may be those of the
originator and do not necessarily represent those of DVSA.

If you were not the intended recipient, you have received this email and
any attached files in error; in which case any storage, use,
dissemination, forwarding, printing, or copying of this email or its
attachments is strictly prohibited.  If you have received this
communication in error please destroy all copies and notify the sender
[and ] by return email.

DVSA's computer systems may be monitored and communications carried on
them recorded, to secure the effective operation of the system and for
other lawful purposes.

Nothing in this email amounts to a contractual or other legal commitment
on the part of DVSA unless confirmed by a communication signed on behalf
of the Secretary of State.

It should be noted that although DVSA makes every effort to ensure that
all emails and attachments sent by it are checked for known viruses
before transmission, it does not warrant that they are free from viruses
or other defects and accepts no liability for any losses resulting from
infected email transmission.

Visit  for information about the Driver Vehicle and Standards Agency.

The original of this email was scanned for viruses by the Government Secure Intranet virus
scanning service supplied by Vodafone in partnership with Symantec.
(CCTM Certificate Number 2009/09/0052.) This email has been certified virus free.
Communications via the GSi may be automatically logged, monitored and/or recorded for
legal purposes.


This all looks pretty genuine – they probably copied it verbatim with the exception of the “good afternoon”.

The payload is a Microsoft Word document with macros, but I’ve yet to figure out exactly what it’s doing. In the parlance of the security “industry” it’d be a zero-day exploit, but that’s not interesting. What did come as a bit of a surprise to me is that GSI doesn’t seem to bother with SPF records, which would have helped detect the fake. Bayesian analysis throws up nothing, and it’s coming from a clean IP address that has yet to be listed. The only things wrong with it are that there’s no reverse lookup, and no SPF on to flag it as dodgy.

The civil service clearly hasn’t got this security business clear yet.

Governments’ hacking fantasies

It’s silly season again.

Yesterday George Osborne warned that Islamists were tooling up and planning deadly cyber-attacks against the UK, targeting critical systems like ATC and hospitals, as he announced government spending on countermeasures would double from about £200M to £400M a year. Mr Osborne shown a rather tenuous grasp of technology in the past, and I fear he’s been watching too many Hollywood movies when forming his current opinion.

I know a bit about ATC, and the chances of a jihadi disrupting NAS over the internet are slight. Damaging aviation is much easier by more direct means.

Likewise, while I have little time for the design of NHS computers systems, even they’d be hard to seriously disrupt. So difficult that it really wouldn’t be worth the bother. If you want to knock out a hospital, blow up the generators and electricity feed – it’s obvious. About the only systemic damage you could do remotely would be to mess up central databases, but these seem to get messed up regularly anyway, and the world goes on.

But this seems positively sane and sensible compared to today’s report from the “US-China Economic and Security Review Commission”. They’re all exercised about those nasty Chinese guys pinching trade secrets by hacking in to US companies and their government agencies. I’m sceptical about the idea that the Chinese government is behind this, and the Commission has weakened the credibility of their claims with their suggested response to the activity:

Yes folks, their suggestion is that Americans hack in to the Chinese systems and steal back or delete the stolen data. How exactly does one steal back data? And do they really think it’s possible to locate, identify and delete stolen data found in a foreign country. Deleting all copies of data from a local system is hard enough, and if the IT department knows its stuff, it’s impossible as it won’t all be on-line.

Whilst there’s plenty of evidence that people in China, and possibly the military, are engaged in cyber-espionage, this idea reads like the plot of another Hollywood movie of the type George Osborne seems to have been watching. Everyone in the security world knows that the majority of criminal activity on the Internet actually comes from…. the USA. This doesn’t mean the US government is behind it – by the sound of the advice they’re getting, they wouldn’t know how.

People like me have been saying that cyber-crime is (going to be) a big problem for many years now, and I welcome governments waking up and taking it seriously at last. The private sector has done spectacularly badly, as the money is in the superficial stuff, and real security gets in the  way of profits. It’s just a shame that governments have woken up and are groping groggily around in the dark.

The spammed malware attack continues, but Microsoft SE has been getting it wrong

Kudos to Microsoft Security Essentials for picking up the nasty attachment being pumped out like crazy by the clean-skin botnet recently, while most of the other scanners failed to detect it. However, it was wrong about the identity of the malware. It’s not  Peals.F!plock, as I originally reported with skepticism. It’s now detected as a variation of something known as Troj/DocDl-YU (to use the name give by Sophos). Read about it here:

This uses Microsoft’s Office macro language to download further malware from the Internet and install it on the victim’s PC, so if anyone activates it there’ll be more than just this Trojan downloader to worry about. As it’s a Microsoft Word document, people tend to open it. If the government really wants to spend money telling the public how to avoid falling victim to cybercrime, they should start by warning about sending documents by email, instead of the current nonsense. Microsoft might get the hump, though, and as I understand it, they’re acting as advisors.

If people have macros disabled on Word, they’re probably okay as long as they don’t get tricked in to enabling them. I’m not hopeful in this regard.

Meanwhile, those behind it are changing the message tweaking the payload to avoid detection – quite successfully! The latest incarnation reads:


Subject: Water Services Invoice

Good Morning,

I hope you are well.

Please find attached the water services invoice summary for the billing period of 22 September 2015 to 22 October 2015.

If you would like any more help, or information, please contact me on 0345 #######. Our office is open between 9.00am and 5.00pm Monday to Friday. I will be happy to help you. Alternatively you can email me at

Kind regards


Melissa Lears

Billing Specialist

Business Retail

United Utilities Scotland

T: 0345 ####### (#####)


They appear to be updating it every morning at around 0800Z. Let’s see what we get tomorrow.