SPF: Start Your Journey Toward DMARC Compliance

Are you 100% sure that your domain isn’t getting compromised or exploited by cybercriminals? What if we tell you that one in every 99 emails is a phishing email, and over 3.4 billion phishing emails are sent per day? Could your domain be the next one to be misused by threat actors for attempting malicious activities?

So, what’s the solution? 

You can take the first step toward a secure email infrastructure by achieving Domain-Based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance or DMARC compliance. But the journey starts with SPF or the Sender Policy Framework. 

Let’s begin by understanding what SPF is in brief.

What is SPF?

SPF is an email authentication protocol that detects and prevents email spoofing. It allows only authorized IPs to deliver emails from your domain. SPF authentication fails when an unauthorized entity tries to send emails using your domain. It lets mail exchangers verify whether incoming emails belong to the list of specified IP addresses. 

SPF compliance depends on an SPF record, which is a TXT record submitted to DNS by domain owners. Creating an SPF record is essential as it enlists all the IP addresses allowed to use your domain. 

So, how does an SPF record work? Once an email is sent, its return-path is verified, and the IP address of the sender is compared with the IPs listed in the SPF record. If authentication passes, the email will be reflected in the ‘inbox.’ Failed SPF authentication means the email will be marked as ‘spam.’ 

It’s best to regularly check SPF records to ensure they’re updated and correctly configured. 

If emails sent from your domain are frequently labeled as spam or bounce back, your domain reputation and email deliverability rate worsens. This can negatively affect your SEO ranking.

 

DMARC Compliance: What SPF Has to Do With It

Now, let’s see what DMARC compliance is.

DMARC is a robust email authentication protocol that uses SPF and DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mails) to allow only authorized emails to land in recipients’ inboxes. 

While SPF relies on the return-path address, DKIM uses cryptographic techniques for email verification. Authorized emails are signed with a private cryptographic key (DKIM signature). Recipient servers then verify the email by matching the private key with a public key published in the DNS via a DKIM record. However, neither SPF nor DKIM uses the visible “From:” field of an email for authentication, so bad actors can still trick recipients using fraudulent “From:” addresses. That’s where DMARC comes in. It requires that the (invisible) return-path domain verified by SPF or the verified DKIM signature header matches the “From:” address that users see.

This process is known as DMARC alignment and ensures that the visible “From:” field contains an authenticated domain. While technically, only SPF or DKIM need to be set up for DMARC compliance, it’s best practice to implement both protocols.

That said, implementation alone isn’t enough. Without alignment, DMARC compliance isn’t possible.

For a positive DMARC compliance test, both SPF, and DKIM must PASS and at least one of them must ALIGN, where:

  • SPF PASS means the IP address of an email matches the IP addresses in the SPF record.
  • DKIM PASS means validation using the email’s DKIM signature matches the public key in the DKIM record
  • ALIGN means the domain in the “From:” field matches the domain used by SPF or DKIM.

DMARC compliance requires that SPF or DKIM PASS and that the domain used by either SPF or DKIM align or match the domain in the “From” address.

So, if both authentications PASS, an email is sent from an authorized server, and the header information hasn’t been altered. When at least one authentication ALIGNS, it indicates the sender is permitted to send emails using that domain and they’re genuine senders. 

Why is DMARC Compliance Important?

DMARC compliance can only be achieved with SPF/DKIM authentication and alignment. Non-aligned emails are considered spam, fraudulent or phishing messages, and the recipient’s mailbox refuses to accept them, thus causing them to bounce back or mark them as spam. 

According to a study by the Federal Trade Commission, 10% of 569 businesses with robust online presence publish strict DMARC compliance tests.

Here’s why DMARC compliance is important:

  1. Security: DMARC-compliant domains avert phishing, spamming, and spoofing by disallowing unauthorized entities from using them.
  2. Visibility: As a business owner, you can monitor and assess both legitimate and unauthorized sending sources using your email domain and for what purposes.
  3. Delivery: DMARC compliance tests ensure you use the same technology big businesses use to deliver emails. Enhanced email deliverability is a key component of successful email marketing efforts.
  4. Identity: Your business becomes easily identifiable across DMARC-capable receivers. Moreover, phishing and spoofing attacks can’t compromise your brand reputation.

What’s SPF’s Role in DMARC Compliance?

SPF is evaluated on two bases for DMARC compliance: Authentication and alignment. To reach full compliance, each standard must pass.

On receiving correspondence, the recipient server checks whether an email was sent from a particular IP address or third-party provider matching the authorized sending sources contained in a domain’s SPF record. Thus, generating SPF records for all authorized domains and subdomains is important. 

An email passes authentication when its IP address matches one published in the domain’s DNS records and can be seen in the ‘mail from’ (return-path). 

But it fails authentication and thus SPF compliance when delivered from an IP address not published in the SPF record. 

An email passes alignment (and thus DMARC compliance) when SPF authentication passes AND the domain used by SPF (in the return-path field) matches the domain contained in the visible “From:” field.

Email Validation: The First Step to DMARC Compliance

Ready to start your DMARC journey? The first step is implementing SPF and adding an SPF record to your DNS. DMARC ensures the highest possible delivery of outbound emails and offers in-depth insights into your email channel. 

But first, you must thoroughly audit your company’s email delivery history to discover any system-related deficiencies. SPF compliance analysis can enhance email security and increase email deliverability rates, adding mileage to marketing and SEO efforts. 

Remember to check your SPF records to see whether they’re correctly configured, updated, and maintained. Next, compile a list of all IP addresses and third-party providers authorized to send an outbound email on behalf of your domain. 

This will again help increase email deliverability and domain reputation. You should be aware of which outbound email providers your company is using. It’s better to have a clean and limited list as it’s easier to maintain and monitor. 

Once you’ve successfully implemented SPF, you can achieve DMARC compliance by ensuring SPF authentication and alignment.

It’s the first step to a strict DMARC policy allowing for total email security where only authorized emails are delivered to recipients’ inboxes. 

Note that even if one of the authentication protocols fails, your email will still be eligible for DMARC compliance. However, both DKIM and/or SPF should align; else, your emails can’t be DMARC compliant.

 

Final Thoughts

DKIM and SPF compliances allow for DMARC compliance, which is vital for implementing a strict DMARC policy that prevents any unauthorized emails from being delivered. All emails originating from your domains and subdomains must pass authentication and alignment for 100% DMARC compliance

To take the first step, you must set up the SPF protocol and correctly configure your SPF records. You can also use EasyDMARC’s specialized EasySPF tool to resolve the “Too many DNS lookups” issue causing “Permerror.”

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