Today, the security alias for a site I administer got an automated message pointing out that we lacked a DMARC record. Here’s what I learned about how to set up and test them.

How do clients detect forged emails?

There are two main ways for an email client to check whether a message really came from the server it claims it’s from:

  • DKIM, or DomainKeys Identified Mail, attaches a digital signature to each message and publishes the public key for that signature in the DNS. The client looks up the alleged origin server’s public key, and if it can decrypt the signature, that means the message was signed with the corresponding private key (and thus ostensibly originated on a server controlled by the same person who controlls the DNS).
  • SPF, or Sender Policy Framework, uses TXT records to publish a list of hosts from which legitimate messages will be sent. The client compares the origin of a message to that list, and if the message came from one of the listed hosts, the client knows that it was sent from a machine that the person who controls the DNS considers authorized.

Of course there are other techniques as well, such as signing a message with the sender’s GPG key and then having the recipient manually look up the sender in the trustweb, but DKIM and SPF are the most widely used automatic systems for spam detection.

What happens when they find a fake?

This is where DMARC comes in. With just DKIM and SPF, the alleged sender (ie, the domain who’s either sending the mail or being spoofed) has no way to tell clients what to do when messages fail both authenticity checks.

DMARC is simply a TXT record published in a server’s DNS that tells clients what the person controlling that DNS wants them to do if a message fails both DKIM and SPF checks.

What’s in a DMARC record?

  • Version, which as of 2015 will only ever be v=DMARC1. This field is for future-proofing in case the protocol needs to change someday.
  • Policy, which will be one of p=none, p=quarantine, or p=reject. The policy tells clients what to do with messages that appear to be spam.
  • Percent, which tells clients how often to check messages from this domain. pct=100 will ensure that all messages are checked.
  • Reporting address is a URI that specifies who clients should tell about messages which failed both SPF and DKIM. This will probably look like rua=mailto:dmarcreports@yourdomain.tld.

What policy should I use?

If you choose reject, you’re asking clients to throw away all messages from your domain which fail both SPF and DKIM authentication. Only use this setting if you’re extremely confident that users will never need to see the contents of unauthenticated or incorrectly authenticated mail that comes from legitimate servers on your domain.

Use quarantine if messages that fail both SPF and DKIM authentication should be marked as spam but delivered by clients. This can be a good compromise between ensuring that users are notified of messages that fail authentication, yet letting legitimate but poorly-authenticated messages get to somewhere the users can see them if they check their spam folders.

The none setting is for testing purposes. If you’re just starting out with DMARC, setting your record to none for the first week or two will allow you to see clients’ reports of which legitimate emails from your domain are failing their DKIM and SPF checks. It’s a good idea to leave your DMARC policy set to none until you have DKIM, SPF, or both for every legitimate service that sends emails from your domain. Remember that a message only has to pass one authentication method to be considered not spam – DMARC is only relevant to the messages which fail both.

Deploying DMARC

First, pick the email address to which reports of apparently-spoofed messages should be sent. It’s a good idea to create a new email alias (this should be trivial if you already control your own DNS), so that you can add other administrators if your team grows.

Next, figure out what the record should say. It might look like this:


Once you have the record, add it to your DNS as a TXT record for Then wait a few minutes for the world’s DNS servers to get the memo about your new record, and verify that it’s correctly deployed!

Verify the DMARC record

From the command line, you can use dig txt _dmarc.somedomain.tld to see what that domain’s policies are. For instance, Google’s policy is to quarantine messages and inform a mailauth-reports address:

$ dig txt
;; ANSWER SECTION:  484 IN  TXT "v=DMARC1\; p=quarantine\;"

If you prefer a pretty online interface, you could use a free online tool like instead.

If you happen to have sufficiently dark-gray hat handy, you could try spoofing a message to yourself from your own domain:

$ mail -r spoofed@yourdomain.tld

This will require no small amount of fiddling with firewalls to get working, since many personal systems are configured by default to be unable to send mail.

Alternately, you can just wait until legitimate mail gets sent from your domain, then see what clients report back. The pct=100 directive asks clients to report on all mail recieved from your domain, regardless of whether it passed or failed.

Next Steps

Leave the p=none setting in place until all the systems which you expect to send legitimate emails will have sent something. Then audit the logs emailed to you by client mail hosting providers and see whether any legitimate messages failed both DKIM and SPF.

Fix the systems which sent those poorly-authenticated messages, check the logs from after your fix to make sure no messages are failing both authenticity tests any more, and then increase the p setting to either quarantine or reject by editing the TXT record.