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What Is Email Authentication? Here’s Everything You Need To Know

At first glance, email authentication might seem daunting, riddled with a whole alphabet soup of acronyms. SPF, DKIM, DMARC — it can make your head spin.

To most people, it seems like a lot of work for something that just should “work” naturally.

But authentication is an important part of keeping your email secure and in good standing with ISPs. If you don’t want your email campaigns to languish in spam folders or be blocked altogether, you need to understand the basics of email authentication and why it’s important.

In this guide, we’ll break down what email authentication is, how it works, and why it’s an important part of any email strategy. We’ll also explore the different types of authentication protocols.

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What Is Email Authentication?

Email authentication is a crucial process that verifies the legitimacy of the sender’s identity and protects against email spoofing and forgery. It ensures that the emails you receive are actually from the claimed sender and have not been tampered with during transit. Just like a digital passport for your emails, authentication methods act as a seal of trust, giving recipients confidence in the email’s origin and integrity.

Verification and authentication are crucial steps in customer information and account management. Email verification confirms the authenticity of the customer’s provided information, while authentication validates the account access rights of an individual. However, determining the extent of verification and authentication, including what information needs verification and the timing and method of authentication, isn’t a universal solution and requires a customized approach based on specific needs.

Let’s imagine you receive a physical letter in your mailbox. You notice that it has a postmark from a reputable postal service, a return address from a trusted sender, and a wax seal bearing the sender’s unique emblem.

All these elements provide evidence that the letter is authentic and has not been tampered with.

Similarly, email authentication employs various protocols and techniques to establish trust and ensure the legitimacy of digital communication. By implementing email authentication methods, you can enhance your email deliverability, protect your brand reputation, and safeguard your recipients from phishing attempts.

Why Do You Need To Authenticate Your Email?

By authenticating your email, you not only enhance the security of your account but also gain numerous other benefits. Authenticating your email can help in:

Protecting against email spoofing

Email spoofing is a deceptive practice where cybercriminals forge the sender’s email address to make it appear as if the email originated from a different source. Without proper authentication measures, anyone can send an email claiming to be you, your company, or someone you trust. The consequences can be dire, leading to identity theft, financial fraud, and confusion. Imagine if anyone could impersonate your email address.

Email authentication provides a robust defense against email spoofing. By implementing authentication methods, you can ensure that recipients trust the authenticity of your emails. This safeguards your reputation and protects recipients from scams and fraud.

Enhancing brand reputation

Domain impersonation threatens brand integrity. Cybercriminals often register domain names resembling those of legitimate organizations, using them to deceive recipients. These fraudulent emails may contain requests for sensitive information or misleading offers, tarnishing the trust customers have in your brand.

Robust authentication protocols demonstrate commitment to email security and protect customers from domain impersonation. Authenticated emails assure customers that communication truly originates from your organization, strengthening brand reputation and fostering customer loyalty.

Preventing phishing attacks

Phishing attacks deceive individuals into sharing sensitive information. Email authentication verifies the sender’s domain, blocking fraudulent attempts. It ensures prompt identification of phishing emails, protecting personal and financial data.

Enhancing email deliverability

Every time you hit “send,” your email undergoes a journey through spam filters and complex algorithms before reaching the recipient’s inbox. Without authentication, your emails risk being flagged or filtered as spam or blocked, hindering important connections, opportunities, and business growth.

When authenticated you signal to ISPs that your messages are legitimate and deserving of safe passage to the recipient’s inbox. This boosts email deliverability, increasing the chances of reaching your intended targets and fostering meaningful connections.

What Are the Different Types of Email Authentication?

The most widely used email authentication protocols are SPF, DKIM, and DMARC. Let’s explore each one in more detail.

Sender Policy Framework (SPF). 

Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is a domain-based authentication method that allows you to specify which IP addresses and servers are authorized to send emails on behalf of your domain.

As a marketer, SPF authentication helps protect your brand reputation and ensures the deliverability of your email campaigns.

To authenticate your emails with SPF, you need to publish SPF records in your domain’s DNS settings. These records contain information about the authorized IP addresses and servers. When you send an email campaign, the recipient’s email server checks the SPF records of your domain to verify if the sending server is authorized.

If the sending server’s IP address matches the authorized entries, your emails have a higher chance of reaching the recipients’ inboxes instead of being marked as spam.

Think of SPF as a security checkpoint at the entrance of a prestigious event. Just like event organizers carefully scrutinize the invitations and IDs of attendees, SPF allows your email server to verify the authorized senders who can access your recipients’ inboxes. It’s like having a trusted guest list that ensures only legitimate senders make it through the gate.

Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM)

Email authenticity goes beyond just the sender’s identity. It’s also essential to ensure that your emails remain intact and unaltered during transmission. This is where Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM) comes into play. DKIM adds an extra layer of trust by providing message-based authentication.

DKIM involves the use of cryptographic keys: a private key stored on your email server and a corresponding public key published in your DNS records (both generated by the domain owner.) When you send mail, your server signs it with the private key, creating a unique cryptographic signature. This signature acts as a digital fingerprint of the email’s content.

Upon receipt, the recipient’s email server retrieves the public key from your DNS records and uses it to verify the signature. If the signature is valid and matches the email’s content, it ensures that the email has not been tampered with during transit.

To better understand how DKIM authentication works, consider this example.

Imagine you have an important document that needs to reach a recipient securely. You carefully place the document inside an envelope, seal it with a tamper-proof sticker, and sign your name across the seal. When the recipient receives the envelope, they can verify the seal and your signature to ensure that the document has not been tampered with during its journey. 

In the same way, DKIM adds a unique cryptographic signature to the email message headers, acting as a digital seal. The receiving mail server can verify this signature using the public key, ensuring that the email has not been altered or compromised along the way.

Test if you’re authenticated with our email DKIM checker.

Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC)

Domain Message Authentication Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) builds upon SPF and DKIM to provide policy-based authentication and reporting. 

When configured properly, DMARC provides an extra layer of security against email spoofing, phishing, and other malicious attacks. It also allows you to easily monitor and analyze your authentication setup for any potential issues or unauthorized use of your domain.

With DMARC, you can set policies for handling emails that fail authentication checks. These policies include: 

  • “None” policy: This policy allows you to monitor email authentication results without taking any immediate action. It is useful for the initial implementation stage, as it allows you to gather insights and understand the authentication landscape.

  • “Quarantine” policy: With this policy, emails that fail authentication checks are moved to the recipient’s spam folder or quarantine folder. It provides an extra layer of protection against potentially malicious or suspicious emails while giving you the opportunity to review them before rejection.

  • “Reject” policy: This strict policy instructs receiving servers to reject emails that fail authentication checks outright. The rejected emails are not delivered to the recipient’s inbox. Implementing this policy ensures that only authenticated emails reach your recipients, minimizing the risk of fraudulent emails being delivered under your domain name.

That said, DMARC not only allows you to set policies but also provides valuable feedback and reporting on email authentication results. These reports help you gain insights into the effectiveness of your authentication setup and identify potential issues.

  • Aggregate Reports (RUA): DMARC generates aggregate reports that provide an overview of the authentication results for your emails. These reports give you information about successful authentications and any failures encountered. You can analyze this data to identify patterns, track unauthorized use of your domain, and take necessary action to safeguard your brand.

  • Forensic Reports (RUF): In addition to aggregate reports, DMARC also allows you to receive forensic reports for individual failed emails. These reports provide detailed information about the specific email, including the reason for failure and the authentication status of each component (SPF, DKIM). Forensic reports offer in-depth visibility into failed emails, enabling you to investigate and address any potential issues promptly.

To implement DMARC, you need to publish a DMARC record in your domain’s DNS settings. This record contains instructions for receiving email servers on how to handle failed authentication emails. Additionally, the DMARC record specifies the email address where you want to receive the aggregate and forensic reports.

It’s also important to align your SPF and DKIM setups. SPF alignment ensures that the “Return-Path” domain matches the “From” domain, indicating consistency in email authentication. DKIM alignment verifies that the “d=” (domain) tag in the DKIM signature matches the “From” domain. Alignment helps reinforce the authenticity of your emails and enhances the likelihood of successful DMARC implementation. You can use our tool to check your DMARC.

Bonus Method: Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI)

BIMI allows authenticated email senders to display their brand’s logo next to their emails in supported email clients.

Here’s how it works: To implement BIMI, you must meet specific requirements, including a valid DMARC record and DKIM signature. Additionally, your brand’s logo must comply with BIMI standards and be verified by the relevant authorities. Once you’ve met these criteria, you can work with email clients supporting BIMI to display your logo alongside your authenticated emails.

The impact of BIMI is twofold. First, it adds visual appeal and recognition to your emails. Just like a familiar face in a crowded room, your brand’s logo stands out, creating an immediate sense of familiarity and trust. Recipients can quickly identify your emails among the sea of messages in their inboxes, increasing the chances of your emails being opened and engaged with.

Secondly, BIMI reinforces your brand’s authenticity. By meeting the requirements for BIMI implementation, you’re demonstrating a commitment to email security and authentication. The presence of your logo alongside your emails serves as a powerful trust signal, assuring recipients that your emails are genuinely from your brand and have passed stringent authentication measures.

Can You Use All Four Verification Methods?

The answer depends on factors like your organization’s needs and infrastructure. You need to evaluate each protocol’s need to determine how much protection and authentication you require. For example, if your organization deals with loads of emails or handles sensitive information, going with all four email authentication tools might give you a solid defense against spoofing and phishing attacks.

Consider the compatibility and requirements of your email infrastructure. Some platforms or providers have specific guidelines or limitations for certain protocols. Ensuring compatibility and adherence to guidelines is essential for seamless integration and optimal performance.

Using all four protocols definitely ramps up your security, but weighing the benefits against potential drawbacks is essential. Having multiple protocols can make things a bit more complex and increase your administrative workload. You’ll need to stay on top of monitoring, maintenance, and coordinating between different systems. Also, remember that some email forwarding services or third-party apps might not fully support all authentication protocols, which could cause headaches with email delivery. It’s all about finding that sweet spot where security and practicality meet.

Final Thoughts

Your email campaigns are an essential part of your brand’s identity, and protecting them should be a top priority.

With email authentication protocols like SPF, DKIM, DMARC, and BIMI, you can protect your campaigns from malicious actors and give recipients additional assurance that your emails are legitimate.

Taking the time to implement them should be a no-brainer: not only will it help protect your brand from phishing and impersonation attacks, but it will also give you better deliverability rates.