Email is one of the most prominent ways a cyberattacker can defraud organizations. This is because it is the most popular method for corporate communication. According to research, 91% of all cyberattacks begin with an email. This highlights the importance of being able to differentiate between real and fake emails. Email authentication is an effective way to do that.
Email authentication solutions like DMARC, SPF, and DKIM are becoming popular methods of increasing deliverability and avoiding spam.
Email Authentication Explained
Email authentication is a process of confirming the identity of email senders and the legitimacy of emailed messages. Email authentication plays a critical role in any email-based business. It helps users distinguish legitimate emails from spam and phishing emails and limits the potential risk of cyberattacks.
Several organizations around the world are still behind when it comes to email authentication implementation. In fact, PowerDMARC’s 2024 DMARC adoption report found that more than 70% of domains lacked email authentication.
Do You Need to Authenticate Your Email?
Cybersecurity experts and specialists highly recommend email authentication for all domains. This is because cybercriminals have several ways of exploiting unauthenticated domain names.
- Unauthenticated domain names can be used in phishing emails to steal login credentials
- Unauthenticated domains can be spoofed and impersonated easily by cybercriminals
- Unauthenticated domains can be used to spread ransomware or carry out illegal activities
Soaring statistics on email fraud are a testament to the need for immediate adoption of email authentication protocols. Email has been time and again recognized as the most popular vector for cyber attacks. Verizon’s DBIR reported that 90% of all malware is delivered by email.
When you authenticate your emails you are authorizing them as trusted sources of information for recipients. These emails are recognized by your recipient’s server as genuine. Hence it automatically improves your chances of getting your information delivered.
- Authenticated emails have less risk of spam
- Authenticated emails enjoy higher email deliverability rates
- Authenticated emails comply with Google and Yahoo’s sender requirements
- Authenticated domain names are less likely to be spoofed or impersonated
“Last year we started requiring that emails sent to a Gmail address must have some form of authentication. And we’ve seen the number of unauthenticated messages Gmail users receive plummet by 75%, which has helped declutter inboxes while blocking billions of malicious messages with higher precision.”
What are the 3 Major Email Authentication Protocols?
While there are several email authentication methods, three of these form the foundational elements of authentication. They are SPF, DKIM and DMARC.
1. SPF (Sender Policy Framework)
SPF authenticates your emails by helping you publish an authorized list of senders. So if “188.8.131.52” is a legitimate sender IP for your emails, you can add it to your SPF record. This will help receiving servers recognize emails received from this IP and your domain, as legitimate. Subsequently, an email sent from an IP address that is outside the scope of your SPF record, will be recognized as suspicious.
SPF Email Authentication Process
A domain owner publishes an SPF record in their DNS that contains IP addresses for all authorized email senders. This enables the SPF protocol. The recipient’s email server looks up this SPF record to confirm whether the mail server is authorized for the sending domain. If it is authorized, SPF passes, else it fails for that message.
2. DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail)
DKIM uses digital signatures (cryptography) to sign emails and ensure that it remains unaltered throughout the delivery process. DKIM can help prevent man-in-the-middle attacks where an attacker intercepts email communications to alter message content. It is also helpful in verifying legitimate messages in email forwarding scenarios, where SPF fails.
DKIM Email Authentication Process
2 DKIM key pairs are generated by the domain owner during DKIM implementation. The public key is published on the DNS, and the private key should only be shared with the ESP who is responsible for signing outgoing emails. Once you send an email from your domain, your signer uses the private key to create a cryptic value for your message body that gets appended to your message header. This signature can then be verified by the receiving server by matching it against your public key. A match suggests DKIM pass for your email.
3. DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication Reporting & Conformance)
DMARC is an email authentication protocol that helps domain owners control how they want unauthorized messages to be treated. With DMARC you can take strict action (if you wish) against messages that fail SPF or DKIM authentication checks. To configure DMARC you need to implement either SPF or DKIM. If you configure both, for your emails to pass DMARC, it should pass either of the two protocol checks.
DMARC Email Authentication Process
Your DMARC policy determines how messages that fail SPF or DKIM will be treated. If you configure a policy of “none” no action will be taken. If you configure the “quarantine” policy, your email will be lodged in the recipient’s quarantine folder. If you choose “reject”, emails failing authentication will be discarded.
Expert Tip: While starting, start with a “none” policy. Then slowly shift to “reject” once you are confident with your setup. For a smoother, risk-free transition, try our hosted DMARC. Only a policy of “reject” is effective against cyberattacks.
Additional Email Authentication Methods
In addition to SPF, DKIM, and DMARC email authentication methods, there are a few additional protocols that can benefit you:
- BIMI (Brand Indicators for Message Identification): BIMI allows brands to display their logo in recipient inboxes. It serves as a visual verification of trustworthiness and provides a professional look to your emails.
- MTA-STS (Mail Transfer Agent Strict Transport Security): MTA-STS helps make TLS encryption mandatory in SMTP email communications. This prevents man-in-the-middle attacks like TLS downgrades and DNS spoofing.
- TLS-RPT (Transport Layer Security Reports): TLS-RPT helps you receive reports providing visibility on email delivery issues due to failures in TLS encryption.
How Do You Check if Your Email is Authenticated?
There are several ways to check if your email is authenticated. Checking whether you have email authentication already set up can be crucial for your domain health. This can give you major insights into how protected your emails are against cyberattacks. It also confirms the validity of your existing email authentication setups.
Checking Email Authentication Manually
To check if your emails are authenticated manually, you need to send a test mail from your domain to an account you have access to.
Click on the 3 dots in the top right corner, and select “Show original”.
In a new tab the original message headers will appear. You can check the message summary for SPF, DKIM and DMARC.
Scroll down to view details headers and search for “dkim=”, “spf=” and “dmarc=” fields.
This confirms that your emails are authenticated.
Checking Email Authentication Automatically
There is a much easier way to check and test if your emails are authenticated! This requires just a few seconds of your time and a single click. Here’s how:
Enter your domain name and click on “Lookup”.
Examine your email authentication information with the help of a comprehensive report specifically generated for your domain.
Scroll down for additional information on your email authentication protocols and configurations.
This method is easier as compared to the manual method. The generated report contains a score based on your email security posture, and provides much more visibility into your authentication setups.
How to Authenticate Your Email?
To start authenticating your email, you need to configure email authentication protocols. Let’s explore the steps to do that:
Step 1: Set Up SPF or DKIM Records
To start email authentication you can configure either SPF or DKIM. You can manually create DNS records for these protocols and publish the records on your DNS. If you are not aware of the syntax required, you can alternatively use our SPF record generator and DKIM record generator tools for this step.
Step 2: Set Up DMARC for Emails
To configure DMARC, you can sign up with PowerDMARC for free. Our DMARC record generator tool lets you create a custom record for your domain. Make sure you select a DMARC policy before hitting the “Generate” button. This record needs to be published on your DNS as well.
Step 3: Verify Your Email Authentication Setup
Once you have finished configuring your email authentication protocols, you should check them. Humans are prone to errors, and incorrect records can invalidate your email authentication efforts. To check your email authentication setup, you can either check your email headers or use our PowerAnalyzer tool l. Just enter your domain name and click on “lookup” to check if your record is valid.
Start Your Email Authentication Journey with PowerDMARC
PowerDMARC provides a well-rounded approach to email authentication. Our cloud-based hosted email authentication solutions outperform manual setups. We help you set up DMARC, SPF, DKIM, BIMI, MTA-STS and TLS-RPT correctly, in no time, through an automated setup wizard and background support. What’s even better is that you need no technical expertise or knowledge when you start your email authentication journey with us! We have helped clients improve their email deliverability rates, reduce spam and minimize email-based cyberattacks significantly within a few months of onboarding.
You should choose our DMARC analyzer to start your email authentication journey because:
- Our hosted email authentication solutions help you monitor, optimize and update your protocol setups and policies without entering your DNS again and again.
- Our DMARC reports are simplified, organized and human-readable, and can be exported in CSV and PDF formats. They provide 10x more visibility as compared to normal XML reports.
- We provide a variety of domain security analysis tools to aid you in constantly monitoring the state of your domain’s security.
- You can receive real-time alerts on your email, configure slack, discord and custom webhook notifications for your domains.
We have custom plans for businesses of all sizes, without mandatory long-term commitments!
“Our business is based on trust, not only between us and clients but partners as well. The great partnership we have with PowerDMARC allows us to deliver exceptional services to our clients.“
Steve Smith, Auckland Regional Manager at Advantage
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