Sending mail with invalid From: addresses to Office 365
One of the changes to go into Office 365 in the past year is an antispam rule that rejects on messages with an invalid From: address. When this occurs, the message is rejected with:
550 5.7.512 Access denied, message must be RFC 5322 section 3.6.2 compliant and include a valid From address
If you look up RFC 5322 section 3.6, it says that each message must have one and only one From: address:
+----------------+--------+------------+----------------------------+ | Field | Min | Max number | Notes | | | number | | | +----------------+--------+------------+----------------------------+ | from | 1 | 1 | See sender and 3.6.2 | +----------------+--------+------------+----------------------------+
The structure of a From address is then described in section 3.6.2.
For many years, Exchange server allowed senders and recipients to send messages with malformatted From: addresses. That is, something like this was permitted:
From: “Example Sender”
Even though this is against the RFC 5322 (published in 2008), and RFC 2822 (published 2001) before it, there are still lots of mail servers that send malformatted email in this way. However, if you try to send to other services, it doesn’t work. For example, sending a message that way to Hotmail/Outlook.com results in the message bouncing; sending it to Gmail similarly results in the message bouncing. Indeed, Gmail even forces you to put angle brackets around the email address in the SMTP MAIL FROM. For example, the first line below is rejected by Gmail, the second is accepted:
MAIL FROM: firstname.lastname@example.org
MAIL FROM: <email@example.com>
Exchange accepts them both. So does Office 365.
Exchange has more relaxed enforcements because in the corporate environment, many applications are running on older or buggy platforms but send wanted email; or, people frequently write scripts to transmit email but do not configure them to send RFC-compliant mail. Large services like Gmail and Outlook.com are more picky about protecting their users, but in a corporate environment that sends messages privately, it is not as strictly enforced if it’s just you sending to yourself.
Given all that, late in 2015, we started seeing massive outbound spam attacks from malicious spammers who signed up for the service. They would send spam with an empty MAIL FROM and an empty From: address:
MAIL FROM: <>
We measured the proportion of spam using this pattern; 98-99% of it was being marked as spam (and thus delivered out of our high risk delivery pool), and its total volume was well into the millions per day.
This had numerous drawbacks:
- The amount of spam being generated was taking up bandwidth from legitimate email
- We were still relaying junk to the Internet and the double null-sender was making it difficult to track down the spammers
- The misclassified spam was high enough that it was impacting the quality of our low risk outbound delivery pools. This means that customers were impacted because spammers would get our IPs listed on IP blocklists, affecting our entire customer base
Combining the fact that RFC 2822 was published in 2001 and specified the proper format of an email address, and that there was so much outbound spam, and the workaround was for script-owners of system-generated email to fix their scripts (rather than having to continually chase down spammers), Office 365 decided to crack down on these types of messages:
If you send email to Office 365 with a null SMTP MAIL FROM <>, then the From: address must contain <email@address.TopLevelDomain> including the angle brackets.
From time to time, we get senders telling us that we are mistakenly blocking the following message with the previously mentioned error response:
MAIL FROM: <>
It is not a mistake, we require a From: address to have angle brackets if the SMTP MAIL FROM is <>. Just as different email services have different requirements – Gmail requires angle brackets around the SMTP MAIL FROM, Hotmail requires a valid From: address always – Office 365 requires that email addresses get formatted in a certain way if the MAIL FROM is <>.
Because Office 365 deals with legacy mail servers sending traffic to the service, there are certain RFC requirements that the service is not in a position to enforce without potentially causing customer disruption. At the same time, we are trying to keep the null sender rule simple; it is too confusing to have a complicated if-then-elseIf-elseIf-else logic tree for sending with a null sender . And Office 365 is still much more relaxed than almost any other mail platform even with this restriction in place.
This is the balance that has been struck in our attempts to support legacy mail servers while running a cloud-based service, yet keeping spammers off the network.
 There are lots of other different ways that spammers try to shove email through the system using visual display tricks that are rejected by some recipients, but allowed by others. Yet a complicated AND-OR-NOT would be too difficult to explain to anyone who asked what the logic is, and it wouldn’t be long before even the engineering team couldn’t maintain it. Simplicity is our goal here, and we achieved it.
For example, when someone says their email is getting rejected, it’s a simple explanation to say “Add angle brackets around the From: address.”