VBSpam Comparative Review March 2017

Martijn Grooten & Ionuţ Răileanu

Virus Bulletin

Copyright © Virus Bulletin 2017


 

Introduction

While we were working on this report, one of the biggest news stories circulating was that of a ransomware attack against the Dutch parliament. Writing about the attack, Reuters immediately made a link with a recent diplomatic row between The Netherlands and Turkey [1].

Much as this would have made for a fascinating story – not to mention a huge headache for both countries' diplomats – the real story was far more mundane. Someone working in Parliament received an email [2] about an invoice, thought the email looked sufficiently credible to open it, open the attachment, and then likely enable macros, after which the malware managed, somehow, to bypass locally installed security software.

There are many mistakes in this sorry tale that should not have been made, but it serves as an important reminder: spam is still an issue. For those with a good understanding of email (which presumably includes most readers of this report), this may not seem obvious. We can spot most spam emails – even the few that our spam filters miss – from a mile away and laugh at the silly mistakes made by the spammers: 'Look at the domain name!'; 'Did you notice that it wasn't even signed with DKIM?'.

But most people are not like us; nor should we expect them to be. They may notice the spam, but sometimes they don't, and if it happens to be malicious, some pretty nasty things can happen. And therefore it is important that almost all spam is blocked by email security solutions, and it matters that some of these solutions block a little bit more than others. While spam may not be the most exciting aspect of computer security, it remains a vector for some very costly attacks.

In the VBSpam comparative reviews, we report on the state of spam filtering, give our stamp of approval to those email security solutions that perform well, and highlight the differences in performance between the various solutions.

This month, 15 full solutions were put to the test, all of which performed well enough to achieve a VBSpam award, with four of them performing well enough to earn the VBSpam+ accolade. We also tested seven DNS-based blacklists of various kinds.

The volatility of spam

In January, well before this test started, the Necurs botnet – which had been notorious for spreading malicious spam, in particular the Locky ransomware – significantly decreased its activities [3], only to return in the third week of March with a massive pump-and-dump spam campaign [4].

When we looked into this latter campaign, we noticed [5] that most Necurs spam was easily blocked by every product on test in our lab. Thus the earlier temporary decline in Necurs spam, though good news, is unlikely to have precipitated sighs of relief in spam research labs around the world. This does, however, serve as a clear demonstration of the fact that spam tends to be extremely volatile, both in quantity and in quality.

It is in this context that one should view the decent overall performance of products in this test, with most products blocking more spam on this occasion than in the last test (the average performance measure was only marginally higher, but this figure was skewed by a few outliers). There is no doubt that some hard work on the part of the products' developers contributed to this, but part of the boost in performance may simply be a matter of luck – perhaps the period between late February and early March, when this test was run, just wasn't a very difficult one for spam filtering.

The decrease in Necurs spam during this period is likely to have contributed to the decline in spam with malicious attachments, of which we recorded only a little over 1,000 emails in this test. The typical malicious attachment continues to be a downloader, which means that different users might receive different payloads, depending on their location. Delivery notifications and invoices continue to be a popular lure in these malicious campaigns, though we did notice one adult-themed spam campaign with a malicious JScript‑based downloader attached.

Only 25 of the malicious emails were missed by any of the full solutions, and only two of these were missed by more than one solution: a sample of the Nemucod downloader and a generic downloader written in Java, both of which were missed by two products.

Among the rest of the spam, there were also very few difficult emails: the email with which products had most difficulty was missed by no more than five full solutions. This particular email was a one-line 419 scam. While such scams may not be known for their technical sophistication, the lower volumes in which such messages are often sent helps keep them under the radar.

Results

Among the performance on the spam corpus, OnlyMyEmail and ESET stood out for missing just one and two emails respectively, while Bitdefender, Fortinet, IBM, Kaspersky's Linux Mail Security product and ZEROSPAM all deserve credit for blocking least 99.95% of spam. OnlyMyEmailESETBitdefender and Fortinet did not block any legitimate emails either, earning them VBSpam+ awards. 'Clean sheets' – where the product didn't block any emails from either the ham feed or the newsletter feed – were achieved by Bitdefender, ESET and Fortimail.

Axway MailGate 5.5.1

SC rate: 99.89%
FP rate: 0.01%
Final score: 99.77
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.78%
Abusix SC rate: 99.97%
Newsletters FP rate: 1.3%
Malware SC rate: 99.52%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN

VBSpam

 

Bitdefender Security for Mail Servers 3.1.6

SC rate: 99.98%
FP rate: 0.00%
Final score: 99.98
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.98%
Abusix SC rate: 99.98%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.0%
Malware SC rate: 100.00%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN

VBSpam+

 

ESET Mail Security for Microsoft Exchange Server

SC rate: 99.999%
FP rate: 0.00%
Final score: 99.999
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 100.00%
Abusix SC rate: 100.00%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.0%
Malware SC rate: 99.90%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN

VBSpam+

 

Fortinet FortiMail

SC rate: 99.98%
FP rate: 0.00%
Final score: 99.98
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 100.00%
Abusix SC rate: 99.96%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.0%
Malware SC rate: 100.00%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN

VBSpam+

 

GFI MailEssentials

SC rate: 98.73%
FP rate: 0.04%
Final score: 98.33
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.57%
Abusix SC rate: 98.07%
Newsletters FP rate: 4.7%
Malware SC rate: 99.62%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN

VBSpam

 

IBM Lotus Protector for Mail Security

SC rate: 99.99%
FP rate: 0.01%
Final score: 99.91
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.98%
Abusix SC rate: 100.00%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.3%
Malware SC rate: 100.00%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN

VBSpam

 

Kaspersky Linux Mail Security 8.0

SC rate: 99.96%
FP rate: 0.01%
Final score: 99.89
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.93%
Abusix SC rate: 99.98%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.0%
Malware SC rate: 100.00%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN


VBSpam

 

Kaspersky Secure Mail Gateway

SC rate: 99.92%
FP rate: 0.01%
Final score: 99.85
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.86%
Abusix SC rate: 99.96%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.0%
Malware SC rate: 100.00%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN

VBSpam

 

Libra Esva 4.1.0.0

SC rate: 99.97%
FP rate: 0.03%
Final score: 99.81
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.98%
Abusix SC rate: 99.97%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.6%
Malware SC rate: 100.00%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN

VBSpam

 

OnlyMyEmail's Corporate MX‑Defender

SC rate: 99.999%
FP rate: 0.00%
Final score: 99.99
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 100.00%
Abusix SC rate: 100.00%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.3%
Malware SC rate: 100.00%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN

VBSpam+

 

Scrollout F1

SC rate: 99.17%
FP rate: 0.27%
Final score: 97.57
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.93%
Abusix SC rate: 98.57%
Newsletters FP rate: 6.6%
Malware SC rate: 99.81%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% speed-colour-blobs-RED.jpg

VBSpam

 

Sophos Email Appliance

SC rate: 99.68%
FP rate: 0.04%
Final score: 99.48
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.38%
Abusix SC rate: 99.92%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.0%
Malware SC rate: 99.90%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% speed-colour-blobs-ORANGE.jpg 98% speed-colour-blobs-RED.jpg

VBSpam

 

SpamTitan 6.00

SC rate: 99.85%
FP rate: 0.00%
Final score: 99.81
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.83%
Abusix SC rate: 99.87%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.9%
Malware SC rate: 99.62%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% speed-colour-blobs-YELLOW.jpg 98% speed-colour-blobs-ORANGE.jpg

VBSpam

 

Vade Secure MailCube

SC rate: 99.73%
FP rate: 0.05%
Final score: 99.46
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.39%
Abusix SC rate: 99.99%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.0%
Malware SC rate: 99.04%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN

VBSpam

 

ZEROSPAM

SC rate: 99.95%
FP rate: 0.01%
Final score: 99.77
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 99.93%
Abusix SC rate: 99.97%
Newsletters FP rate: 2.8%
Malware SC rate: 100.00%

10% GREEN 50% GREEN 95% GREEN 98% GREEN

VBSpam

 

IBM XForce API

SC rate: 87.93%
FP rate: 0.03%
Final score: 87.77
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 90.78%
Abusix SC rate: 85.69%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.6%
Malware SC rate: 88.72%

 

IBM XForce API – domains

SC rate: 41.49%
FP rate: 0.00%
Final score: 41.49
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 83.96%
Abusix SC rate: 8.34%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.0%
Malware SC rate: 0.96%

 

IBM XForce API – combined

SC rate: 91.11%
FP rate: 0.03%
Final score: 90.96
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 97.91%
Abusix SC rate: 85.81%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.6%
Malware SC rate: 88.91%

 

Spamhaus DBL

SC rate: 14.74%
FP rate: 0.05%
Final score: 14.47
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 19.71%
Abusix SC rate: 10.85%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.0%
Malware SC rate: 0.00%

 

Spamhaus ZEN

SC rate: 93.36%
FP rate: 0.00%
Final score: 93.36
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 87.66%
Abusix SC rate: 97.81%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.0%
Malware SC rate: 84.80%

 

Spamhaus ZEN+DBL

SC rate: 95.00%
FP rate: 0.05%
Final score: 94.74
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 91.25%
Abusix SC rate: 97.93%
Newsletters FP rate: 0.0%
Malware SC rate: 84.80%

 

URIBL (MX Tools)

SC rate: 38.79%
FP rate: 0.49%
Final score: 35.50
Project Honey Pot SC rate: 77.29%
Abusix SC rate: 8.72%
Newsletters FP rate: 27.2%
Malware SC rate: 0.00%

 

Results tables

  True negatives False positives FP rate False negatives True positives SC rate VBSpam Final score
Axway 7498 1 0.01% 180 158878 99.89% VBSpam 99.77
Bitdefender 7499 0 0.00% 27 159031 99.98% VBSpam+ 99.98
ESET 7499 0 0.00% 2 159056 99.999% VBSpam+ 99.999
FortiMail 7499 0 0.00% 37 159021 99.98% VBSpam+ 99.98
GFI MailEssentials 7496 3 0.04% 2023 157035 98.73% VBSpam 98.33
IBM  7498  0.01%  14  159044  99.99%  vbantispam-pass.gif 99.91
Kaspersky LMS  7498  0.01%  64 158994  99.96%  vbantispam-pass.gif 99.89 
Kaspersky SMG  7498  0.01%  133  158925  99.92%  vbantispam-pass.gif 99.85 
Libra Esva  7497  0.03%  42  159016  99.97%  vbantispam-pass.gif 99.81 
OnlyMyEmail  7499  0.00%  1 159057  99.999%  VBSpam+ 99.99 
Scrollout  7479  20  0.27%  1328  157730  99.17%  vbantispam-pass.gif 97.57 
Sophos  7496  0.04%  504 158554  99.68%  vbantispam-pass.gif 99.48 
SpamTitan  7499  0.00% 236  158822  99.85%  vbantispam-pass.gif 99.81 
Vade Secure MailCube  7495  0.05%  434  158624  99.73%  vbantispam-pass.gif 99.46 
ZEROSPAM  7498  0.01%  75  158983  99.95%  vbantispam-pass.gif 99.77 
IBM X-Force IP*  7497  0.03%  19205  139853  87.93%  N/A 87.77 
IBM X-Force URL*  7499  0.00%  93057  66001  41.49%  N/A  41.49 
IBM X-Force combined*  7497  0.03%  14133  144925  91.11%  N/A  90.96 
Spamhaus DBL*  7495  0.05%  135620  23438  14.74%  N/A  14.47 
Spamhaus ZEN*  7499  0.00%  10561  148497  93.36%  N/A  93.36 
Spamhaus ZEN+DBL*  7495  0.05%  7949  151109  95.00%  N/A  94.74 
URIBL*  7462  37  0.49%  97366  61692  38.79%  N/A  35.50 

*The Spamhaus, IBM X-Force and URIBL products are partial solutions and their performance should not be compared with that of other products. (Please refer to the text for full product names and details.)

 

  Newsletters Malware Project Honey Pot Abusix STDev† Speed
  False positives FP rate False negatives SC rate False negatives SC rate False negatives SC rate 10% 50% 95% 98%
Axway 4 1.3%  99.52%  152  99.78%  28  99.97%  0.22  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
Bitdefender 0 0.00%  100.00%  11  99.98%  16  99.98%  0.09  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
ESET 0 0.00%  99.90%  99.997%  100.00%  0.02  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
FortiMail 0 0.00%  100.00%  99.999%  36  99.96%  0.13  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
GFI MailEssentials 15 4.7%  99.62%  297  99.57%  1726  98.07%  0.90  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
IBM 1 0.3%  100.00%  14  99.98%  100.00%  0.05  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
Kaspersky LMS 0 0.0%  100.00%  47  99.93%  17  99.98%  0.13  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
Kaspersky SMG 0 0.0%  100.00%  98  99.86%  35  99.96%  0.18  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
Libra Esva 2 0.6%  100.00%  15  99.98%  27  99.97%  0.08  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
OnlyMyEmail 1 0.3%  100.00%  99.999%  100.00%  0.01  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
Scrollout 21 6.6%  99.81%  48  99.93%  1280  98.57%  1.70  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-RED.jpg
Sophos 0 0.0%  99.90%  431  99.38%  73  99.92%  0.43  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-ORANGE.jpg speed-colour-blobs-RED.jpg
SpamTitan 3 0.9%  99.62%  116  99.83%  120  99.87%  0.28  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-YELLOW.jpg speed-colour-blobs-ORANGE.jpg
Vade Secure MailCube 0 0.0%  10  99.04%  427  99.39%  99.99%  0.38  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
ZEROSPAM 9 2.8%  100.00%  49  99.93%  26  99.97%  0.16  speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg
IBM X-Force IP* 2 0.6%  118  88.72%  6427  90.78%  12778  85.69%  3.61  N/A N/A  N/A  N/A 
IBM X-Force URL* 0 0.0%  1036  0.96%  11189  83.96%  81868  8.34%  17.05  N/A  N/A  N/A  N/A 
IBM X-Force combined* 2 0.6%  116  88.91% 1461  97.91%  12672  85.81%  3.70  N/A  N/A  N/A  N/A 
Spamhaus DBL*  0 0.0%  1046  0.00%  55999  19.71%  79621  10.85%  6.20  N/A  N/A  N/A  N/A 
Spamhaus ZEN*  0 0.0%  159  84.80%  8609  87.66% 1952  97.81%  3.06  N/A  N/A  N/A  N/A 
Spamhaus ZEN+DBL*  0 0.0%  159  84.80%  6102  91.25%  1847  97.93%  2.43  N/A  N/A  N/A  N/A 
URIBL*  86 27.2%  1046  0.00%  15842  77.29%  81524  8.72%  1566  N/A N/A  N/A  N/A 

* The Spamhaus products, IBM X-Force and URIBL are partial solutions and their performance should not be compared with that of other products. None of the queries to the IP blacklists included any information on the attachments; hence their performance on the malware corpus is added purely for information.
† The standard deviation of a product is calculated using the set of its hourly spam catch rates.

speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg 0-30 seconds speed-colour-blobs-YELLOW.jpg 30 seconds to two minutes speed-colour-blobs-ORANGE.jpg two minutes to 10 minutes speed-colour-blobs-RED.jpg more than 10 minutes


(Please refer to the text for full product names.)

 

Hosted solutions Anti-malware IPv6 DKIM SPF DMARC Multiple MX-records Multiple locations
OnlyMyEmail Proprietary (optional)   *
Vade Secure MailCube DrWeb; proprietary  
ZEROSPAM ClamAV      

* OnlyMyEmail verifies DMARC status but doesn't provide feedback at the moment.
(Please refer to the text for full product names.)

 

Local solutions Anti-malware IPv6 DKIM SPF DMARC Interface
CLI GUI Web GUI API
Axway MailGate Kaspersky, McAfee        
Bitdefender Bitdefender        
ESET ESET Threatsense    
FortiMail Fortinet  √    √
GFI MailEssentials Five anti-virus engines          
IBM Sophos; IBM Remote Malware Detection          
Kaspersky LMS Kaspersky Lab        
Kaspersky SMG Kaspersky Lab        
Libra Esva ClamAV; others optional        
Scrollout ClamAV        
Sophos Sophos          
SpamTitan Kaspersky; ClamAV √      √ 

(Please refer to the text for full product names.) 

 

Product Final score
ESET 99.999
OnlyMyEmail 99.99
Bitdefender 99.98
Fortimail 99.98
IBM 99.91
Kaspersky LMS 99.89
Kaspersky SMG 99.85
Libra Esva 99.81
SpamTitan 99.81
Axway 99.77
ZEROSPAM 99.77
Sophos 99.48
Vade Secure MailCube 99.46
GFI MailEssentials 98.33
Scrollout 97.57

(Please refer to the text for full product names.) 

 

VBSpam-chart-March17.jpg

Conclusion

This was an easy test for filtering spam – for most products, anyway. However, as new spam botnets come and go, the situation may quickly change. We are looking forward to seeing how products perform in a no doubt much changed threat landscape in May.

The next test report, to be published in June 2017, will continue to look at all aspects of spam. Those interested in submitting a product are asked to contact martijn.grooten@virusbulletin.com.

References

[1] http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-netherlands-cyber-parliament-idUKKBN16Z1IT.

[2] https://twitter.com/markloman/status/846754303016685568.

[3] http://blog.talosintelligence.com/2017/01/locky-struggles.html.

[4] http://blog.talosintelligence.com/2017/03/necurs-diversifies.html.

[5] https://www.virusbulletin.com/blog/2017/03/mostly-blocked-still-good-enough-necurs-sending-pump-and-dump-spam/.

[6] http://www.postfix.org/XCLIENT_README.html.

Appendix: set-up, methodology and email corpora

The full VBSpam test methodology can be found at https://www.virusbulletin.com/testing/vbspam/vbspam-methodology/.

The test ran for 69 days, from 12am on 18 February to 12am on 5 March 2017.

The test corpus consisted of 166,873 emails. 159,058 of these were spam, 69,743 of which were provided by Project Honey Pot, with the remaining 89,315 spam emails provided by spamfeed.me, a product from Abusix. There were 7,499 legitimate emails ('ham') and 316 newsletters.

Moreover, 1,046 emails from the spam corpus were found to contain a malicious attachment; though we report separate performance metrics on this corpus, it should be noted that these emails were also counted as part of the spam corpus.

Emails were sent to the products in real time and in parallel. Though products received the email from a fixed IP address, all products had been set up to read the original sender's IP address as well as the EHLO/HELO domain sent during the SMTP transaction, either from the email headers or through an optional XCLIENT SMTP command [6]. Consequently, products were able to filter email in an environment that was very close to one in which they would be deployed in the real world.

For those products running in our lab, we ran them as virtual machines on a VMware ESXi cluster. As different products have different hardware requirements – not to mention those running on their own hardware, or those running in the cloud – there is little point comparing the memory, processing power or hardware the products were provided with; we followed the developers' requirements and note that the amount of email we receive is representative of that received by a small organization.

Although we stress that different customers have different needs and priorities, and thus different preferences when it comes to the ideal ratio of false positive to false negatives, we created a one-dimensional 'final score' to compare products. This is defined as the spam catch (SC) rate minus five times the weighted false positive (WFP) rate. The WFP rate is defined as the false positive rate of the ham and newsletter corpora taken together, with emails from the latter corpus having a weight of 0.2:

WFP rate = (#false positives + 0.2 * min(#newsletter false positives , 0.2 * #newsletters)) / (#ham + 0.2 * #newsletters)

Final score = SC - (5 x WFP)

In addition, for each product, we measure how long it takes to deliver emails from the ham corpus (excluding false positives) and, after ordering these emails by this time, we colour-code the emails at the 10th, 50th, 95th and 98th percentiles:

speed-colour-blobs-GREEN.jpg (green) = up to 30 seconds
YELLOW (yellow) = 30 seconds to two minutes
speed-colour-blobs-ORANGE.jpg (orange) = two to ten minutes
speed-colour-blobs-RED.jpg (red) = more than ten minutes


Products earn VBSpam certification if the value of the final score is at least 98 and the 'delivery speed colours' at 10 and 50 per cent are green or yellow and that at 95 per cent is green, yellow or orange.

Meanwhile, products that combine a spam catch rate of 99.5% or higher with a lack of false positives, no more than 2.5% false positives among the newsletters and 'delivery speed colours' of green at 10 and 50 per cent and green or yellow at 95 and 98 per cent earn a VBSpam+ award.

 

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