Let’s make it short and simple: from my experience, significant percentage or most of the SPAM mail is blocked by the Office 365 mail security gateways. This doesn’t mean that we cannot experience SPAM because, there are no perfect systems that will block 100% of SPAM all the time. In case that we do experience SPAM mail, we can use many tools and option that available for us in Office 365 for dealing with SPAM mail.
In this article, we quickly review the different types of SPAM mail. Then we will present the different tools that we can use for fighting SPAM mail in an Office 365 environment and try to “match” the “SPAM tool” for the task based on the type of the SPAM.
- Dealing with SPAM Mail in Office 365 | Part 1/2
- Dealing with SPAM Mail in Office 365 | Server side (Exchange Online) | Part 2/2
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Part 1: SPAM mail and Office 365 environment
SPAM mail and Office 365 environment
One of the most considerable advantages of using Office 365 is that, many of these services such as: Mail security, are implemented transparently, behind the scene. Office 365 mail services include by default a mail security infrastructure, that is based on a platform describes as: EOP – Exchange Online Protection (the former mail security infrastructure was implemented by the FOPE services).
The EOP infrastructure serves as mail gateways, which are responsible for the “Hygiene” of incoming and outgoing mail flow. The purpose of this mail gateway’s is to filter any malware, virus or SPAM that included in the mail flow that comes from external sources to the Office 365 recipients (incoming mail flow) and also in the opposite direction: mail that sends from Office 365 recipients to external sources.
Who is to blame?
The EOP performs his duties faithfully but, from to time Office 365 subscribers can experience SPAM mail that gets into their mailbox.
Before we begin with the technical part of “mitigating the SPAM issue” I would like to relate to the issue of the “Blame.” Many times the response from our customer includes an implicit or explicit claims such as: “since we move to the cloud (Office 365), we experience SPAM issue” or “Microsoft doesn’t provide a good mail security by allowing SPAM mail to enter our company.”
I think that many times these “claims” are excessive, because most of the time the EOP (Exchange Online protection) is doing a very good job of protecting the Office 365 recipients. Let’s not forget that there is no “perfect solution” that will block 100% of SPAM mail because “SPAM Solutions\Gateways”, will always need to face the issues of:
- False Positive – a scenario in which the defending systems recognize legitimate mail is “Bad\SPAM” mail and block the mail.
- False Negative – a scenario in which the defending system doesn’t recognize Bad\SPAM mail and the mail reach to the recipient mailbox.
Additionally, there is the factor of the “dynamically changes” of SPAM mail methods that presents a challenge in each second\minutes for the security and the response team that manages the signature database of the EOP.
So what is the consolation? The point is that is “O.K” if we experience SPAM from time to time as long as we have the tools or the solution for stopping the SPAM.
SPAM mail – Troubleshooting process and classification
To create a clear path of the troubleshooting process, we will need to implement the work flow described in the following diagram:
Step 1 – Get information about the character of the SPAM mail
The most basic step is to get an essential information about the SPAM message. We will need to decide if the mail message is truly an SPAM message and if so, try to recognize the type of the SPAM. Based on this information, we will need to choose the right “tools” for mitigating the SPAM.
Step 2 – Block\Report SPAM mail
When we deal with SPAM mail, we need to: try to block the SPAM mail by using the available option from the “Server Side” (Exchange Online and EOP) and the “Client side” (Outlook). The process of blocking the SPAM mail could be implemented as a combined operation of: using tools for filtering SPAM mail and other tools for reporting (send a sample of the SPAM mail) to the Microsoft team that manages the EOP infrastructure.
Step 3 – contact Office 365 support team
In case that all of our effort failed and, the our recipient still getting SPAM mail, we can always contact the Office 365 support team and ask for help in our task of stopping the SPAM mail (most of the time, we will need to collect and send some sample SPAM mail so these mail items will be sent to the Microsoft team that mange the office mail security gateways.
Get information about the character of the SPAM mail
When a user complains about “SPAM mail,” we need to verify if the mail is entitled to the title “SPAM mail.” For example, we would like to know if the mail is a “truly SPAM mail” or just an “Innocent mail” that was sent from by a distribution list that the user subscribed to in the past.
The SPAM mail characters
Let’s assume that we check the mail, and we identify that this is an SPAM mail. Most of the time, we use the term “SPAM mail” or “Junk mail” to describe unwanted email, but in the reality, there are many types of “SPAM\Junk” mail and each of the types has his own characters. The next step is to: classify the type of the SPAM mail, because based on this information, we can use to the most appropriate solution and the amount of “resources” that we need to allocate for blocking the SPAM mail.
The classification could be: SPAM mail that sent from a specific Sender\Domain, SPAM mail that includes specific keyword or specific language charters, a specific type of SPAM such as NDR backscatter ( that we will be reviewed in the section: Scenario 2: Blocking SPAM Mail classified as NDR backscatter ) and so on.
Additional type of classification that we need to get is: what is the scope and the business impact of the SPAM mail? For example: is the SPAM mail effecting a specific user or all the organization users, what is the “Dosage” of the SPAM is it one or two SPAM mail items that sent randomly or is it a “flood” of tens and hundreds of SPAM mails.
Here is a sample from a Questioning list that could help to gather the required information:
Q: Is the mail considered as SPAM mail or just standard advertisement mail from will Know\familiar Company?
Q: Is the SPAM Mail sent from a specific sender email address?
Q: Is the SPAM Mail sent from a specific domain?
Q: Does the SPAM Mail include specific keywords in the mail Subject\Body?
Q: Does the SPAM Mail include characters of non-English language?
Q: Is the SPAM Mail from a specific geographical location?
Q: Is the SPAM Mail sent on a specific schedule (specific hour or date)?
Q: What is the percentage of organization users who get the SPAM mail?
Q: What is the ”amount” of the SPAM mail (single mail item, Tens and hundreds of SPAM mails)?
Dealing with SPAM: Server Side – optional solutions
We can classify the tools, and the operation that we can use for mitigating the SPAM issue as:
- Client side (Outlook, OWA)
- Server side (Exchange Online server).
In this section I would like to quickly review the option that’s available for us from the server side.
Exchange Online Protection (EOP)
A bit history: in former versions of Office 365 (and BPOS), the solution for “mail security” was implemented by a product named: FOPE (Forefront Online Protection for Exchange). Office 365 subscribers had access to FOPE web management, but the interface and the access to the FOPE management was Uncomfortable and had many advantages.
EOP (Exchange Online Protection) is the new successor of the FOPE, and I am happy to say that: long live the new king!
EOP has many advantages over FOPE and the good news is that EOP is fully integrated in the Exchange Online management. Actually, most of us don’t relate to the EOP as a “separated component” because from the Exchange Online administrator’s point of views, the EOP is just “additional menu” in the Exchange Online web management interface (described as Exchange Online Management -EAC).
In the following screenshot, we can see the web interface management that enables us to access to the EOP settings. In the Exchange Online web management, the management of the EOP displayed as the “protection” menu.
Exchange Online – Rules
An additional component that we can use for dealing with SPAM mail is the “rules” (in former versions of Exchange the term was Transport Rules). The “rule” component, is a very powerful tool that enables us to control and manage each of the incoming and outgoing mail items that is sent to the Office 365 recipients, and each of the mail items sent by the Office 365 recipients and to external recipients.
In the following diagram, we can see e representation of the Exchange Online tolls and option that we can use based on the “Type” of the SPAM mail.
A quick wrap-up of the option that are available for us in the Exchange Online environment:
Part 2: Dealing with SPAM mail - Client side
In the following section, we will review the available option that we can use for mitigating SPAM mail in an Office 365 environment. We can classify the different options\tools as: Client side and server side.
1. Microsoft Junk E-mail Reporting Add-in
The Microsoft Junk E-mail Reporting Add-in, is a very useful Outlook add-in that enabled each of the users to create a “direct connection” to the Microsoft team that is reasonable for: mail security (and update all the information in a Virus\SPAM signature database).
By selecting the mail item and by choosing the option of “Report Junk,” the mail item will automatically be sent to the Microsoft mail security team for further analysis and investigation to help to improve the effectiveness of our junk e-mail filtering technologies.
The big advantage of the Microsoft Junk E-mail Reporting Add-in is the “Ease of Use. In a scenario of false negative (In which the defending system doesn’t recognize Bad\SPAM mail and the mail reached to the recipient mailbox), a “standard user” (no need for administrative privileges) can report about the “SPAM mail” very easily and without the need for complicated technical steps.
The “disadvantages” are that this add-in, is not included by default as a part of the Outlook installation (although there is an option for distributing this add-in a centralized way(for more information read the article: Enterprise deployment) and that, Despite the fact that the user the report the SPAM mail gets a “confirmation mail,” there is no clear indication about “what was done with the information,” and if the information
(The SPAM mail) It was updated in the SPAM signature database. From my experience, the good news is that even without the process of “feedback” from the Microsoft team, the information is analyzed and the “SPAM signature” is updated in a short time, the SPAM mail stops to reach to the recipient mailbox.
Step 1 – Download and Install the Microsoft Junk E-mail Reporting Add-in
You can find the Microsoft Junk E-mail Reporting Add-in using the following link: Microsoft Junk E-mail Reporting Add-in for Microsoft Office Outlook
When you get to the download page, most of the time the option that will suit your needs is: Junk Reporting Add-in for Office 2007, 2010, 2013 (32bit).msi
Step 2 – Report email as SPAM
In Outlook 2010\2013, the Microsoft Junk E-mail Reporting Add-in is implemented by additional menu option named: Report junk that is added to the “Junk” section to be able to report an email as SPAM. To “mark” mail item as Junk use the following procedure:
- Choose the required mail items
- In the Home Tab choose the small black arrow of the Junk option.
- Choose the option Report Junk
A warning message appears and inform the user that the mail item will be reported as a SPAM. Choose the “Yes” option.
When we choose the “yes” option, the following events will accrue:
In the following screenshot, we can see a mail item that was reported as an SPAM. The mail item will be moved automatically to the Junk Email folder.
In the Sent items folder, we can see a “new mail” sent to the Microsoft abuse team that includes attachment (the mail that was reported as SPAM).
After the SPAM mail was sent to the Microsoft abuse team, a “response mail” will be sent to the user. In the following screenshot, we can see the ”approval mail” that was sent by the Microsoft support team.
General notes – Outlook 2007 interface
When we install the Microsoft Junk E-mail Reporting Add-in for Outlook 2007, the option of “report junk” will be added on the top menu option.
2. Outlook Junk option – block sender
Another option that is available for us from the “client side” is the: Outlook junk component and the option of: “block sender” (Add a sender to the Blocked Senders list).
This option is most suitable in a scenario that the SPAM mail is delivered from a specific recipient email address. In reality, many times, the “spammers” mange to send the SPAM mail by using a different source recipient email address, so the option of “block sender” will not help us in such scenarios.
Add a sender to the Blocked Senders list
In case that you want to block the sender who sends SPAM mail, we can use the junk menu for blocking this recipient.
- Choose the required mail items,
- In the Home Tab chooses the small black arrow of the Junk option.
- Choose the option of: Block sender
3. Antivirus software
There is the big importance of using Antivirus software. Most of the Antivirus programs include a dedicate component for mail security, which is responsible for enforcing mail security such as: recognize and block Malware (Antivirus, SPAM and so on). In case that a specific user complains about SPAM mail, please verify the following requirements:
4. Outlook add-in\plugins
In case that we suspect the SPAM issue is caused by Outlook add-in\plug-in, we can disable this “add-ins” by running Outlook in safe mode.
5. Unsubscribe from a mailing list
In case that the user report about “SPAM Mail” and when we check the mail item, we see that the sender is not considered as “Spammer” (mail is just a standard advertising email that sent to a distribution list), most of the time the mail will include an option that enables the user to unsubscribe from the mailing list.
So, before we start to use the “heavy artillery,” please check if the option of “unsubscribe” exists.
6. Educate users About: How to Avoid SPAM
The part of “Educate users About: How to Avoid SPAM” belong to the “proactive” section in which we are trying to avoid a scenario that could lead to SPAM Mail. By providing our user instructions and guidance about operation that they should avoid, we can prevent or significantly reduce in advance the occurrence of “SAPM events.”
You can read more information about this subject by using the following links:
- Dealing with SPAM Mail in Office 365 | Part 1/2
- Dealing with SPAM Mail in Office 365 | Server side (Exchange Online) | Part 2/2
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