Sembee Blog of Exchange MVP Simon Butler

Catch All Mailboxes and the POP3 Connector

I have recently seen an issue with the POP3 connector which I haven't seen before, but will be very widespread. In this particular circumstance it caused the client's server to get blacklisted and have a server processing many thousands of messages which it shouldn't need to.

It is yet another reason why using the POP3 Connector is a bad idea. I have blogged on the POP3 connector being a bad option in the past: http://blog.sembee.co.uk/archive/2006/09/25/25.aspx .

This client was not only using a POP3 connector, but they were also using a catch all mailbox at the ISP - I have posted today why using a catch all is a bad idea here:  http://blog.sembee.co.uk/archive/2010/02/15/117.aspx (posting that item was inspired by this one).

The Problem

The actual problem was quite simple, and something that Exchange could have dealt with on its own if the server was setup for SMTP delivery. However it became a noticeable issue because of the way this particular server was configured.

The domain was subject to an NDR or directory harvest attack (I cannot tell which due to the nature of the SBS Connector) and ended up with large numbers of email messages in their queues.

What puzzled the client was that port 25 wasn't open to the internet, and they had followed my guides on recipient filtering and authenticated user relay so that the server was secure ( http://www.amset.info/exchange/spam-cleanup.asp ).
As I wrote in that article, messages can continue to appear in the queues for some hours after the initial clean-up due to the way Exchange displays the queues when there are a very large number of messages in the queues. However for this client, the messages continued to appear for weeks. Eventually, fed up with cleaning the queues daily, I was asked to look at the server.

What I found was that the messages in the queues were all from postmaster@ so had the classic hallmarks of an NDR or direct harvest attack, but the client was using the POP3 Connector.

Due to the way the POP3 connector works, messages that come in to the server through it are not subject to the recipient filter. The recipient filter works at the connection point, but the POP3 connector simply drops the in to the queue for delivery. This is the key point and the result was the same as a standard NDR attack through SMTP without recipient validation  - the messages that could be delivered were, and the messages with invalid external recipients, or where there was a delivery problem, hung around in the queues. As time went on, the server became blacklisted by most major ISPs for being a source of spam and back scatter.

Furthermore, the client also had the POP3 connector setup to send a copy of messages that could not be delivered to a valid user  in to a mailbox, so not only were the messages being delivered there (and the client had what they considered to be a major spam problem) but the NDRs were going out as well. The user concerned thought they were receiving large amounts of spam - when in actual fact they were receiving email that wasn't even addressed to them.

In short, it was a complete mess.

This will be a widespread problem

In many respects, the client was not to blame for this problem. This configuration is quite common, and would therefore affect everyone using the POP3 connector with a catch all mailbox. However you may not see the messages in the queues and therefore be unaware that your server is a source of spam or backscatter.

The most common configuration when SBS is used with a POP3 connector is to route email OUT through a smart host - usually the ISPs SMTP Server. If you are doing that in combination with a catch all mailbox then you wouldn't see the symptoms of this problem. When a smart host is used, Exchange is sending the email straight back out again and the smart host is responsible for the delivery of the email.

It was only because this client was using direct delivery rather than a smart host that the email messages were shown in the queue causing further investigation. The client had accepted large amounts of spam in the mailbox as something that happens - and asked me to look at that as another issue - not realising that it was all caused by the same thing.

If the server had been configured in the usual way for POP3 use, that is to use a smart host, then the first the client would have known there is a problem is when their ISP called to tell them - although many do not.

Furthermore the email messages also do not appear in message tracking logs as they do not pass through Exchange, but simply bounce off SMTP. The only messages that do appear in message tracking are those delivered to the user set to receive the messages that could not be delivered.
Therefore a server could be the source of back scatter and the administrators (whether in house or an external support company) would be completely oblivious to the issue.

I haven't been able to verify if the email messages showed in the volume reported by the SBS Reporting tool, because as with most SBS Servers I see, it wasn't turned on.

The Solution

Changing the client to SMTP delivery of email resulted in the spam level dropping immediately. In the 24 hours after the change, the number of messages the server dropped for non-valid recipients was measured in 1000s. The account which received a copy of the unmatched addresses from the POP3 connector saw the level of spam almost completely drop away - as most of the spam wasn't addressed to the user.

Conclusion

There is a very simple conclusion to this blog posting.
Don't use a catch all mailbox with the POP3 Connector. Ideally you shouldn't use the POP3 connector at all.

If you are using the POP3 connector and do not wish to move to SMTP delivery, then you should look at switching to user specific POP3 mailboxes instead of a catch all. While that is more tedious to setup, it does mean you are only downloading email that you may want, rather than lots of spam that you almost certainly do not, only for it to be rejected.

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