Tracing Emails

by Chetan Gupta, NII Consulting

Have you ever received an anonymous email and wondered who it was from? Ever conducted business via email and wanted to know if the other party is who they say they are? As you can imagine, the uses for this type of investigation are endless. Not only is it possible to find the sender of the anonymous email but it is also possible to locate the sender

With the ever-increasing penetration of computers in our lives, emails have become a vital source of communication. It is quickly becoming the prime medium for business and personal correspondence and is undoubtedly the most popular way we communicate with others on a daily basis. As with any popular technology, email technology is also prone to abuse. While most people use email for its intended purpose, a very large number use this medium for a completely different goal: anonymous threats, fraudulent transactions, unsolicited commercial messages, blackmail and even ransom notes. As these cases rise day-by-day, it becomes imperative that the Forensics Investigator have the required skills and tools to follow the electronic traces left by an email and nab the culprit(s).

Preparing the Ground

First step in tracing an e-mail is having a thorough understanding of the e-mail process. A broad outline of the steps is given below:

Email ProcedureFigure 1: Email process

Mail User Agent (MUA) – A program such as Outlook, Thunderbird, or Outlook Express run by the user to read, reply to, compose and dispose off emails.

Mail Transport Agent or Message Transfer Agent (MTA) – The program responsible for storing and forwarding or delivering emails.

Mail Delivery Agent (MDA) – The actual program responsible for delivering emails to a user. MDAs usually handle one specific type of mail delivery.

When you send an e-mail, each intermediate device (MUA, MTA and MDA) may insert some headers in the message. These headers can help an investigator reconstruct the path that the e-mail took to the receiver. The last MUA may apply a filter to the stored mail causing selected headers to be omitted from the display. In a way, this filtering ‘removes’ the headers from the user’s view (although no headers are actually removed by the MUA). This is reason that the user doesn’t see all the headers in the normal mail view. The headers typically omitted are those inserted by the MTAs, and those having to do with the transport process and less with the contents.

The email headers not shown usually can be viewed by clicking on ‘Show all headers’, ‘View source’ or ‘Full Headers’ link depending upon the mailing program. If you use Microsoft Outlook, just follow these steps to view the headers:

  1. Right-click on the mail message that is still in your Outlook Inbox
  2. Select ‘Options’ from the resulting popup menu
  3. Examine the ‘Internet Headers’ in the resulting ‘Message Options’ dialog

Putting on the Gloves

Step 1: Examine all the headers of the incoming message

Example: This is an e-mail sent to my e-mail address by Verisign. When I click “View Source”, I get all the headers. What you see will be very similar to the following (with ‘line numbers’ added for clarity and further discussion)

  1. Return-Path: [[email protected]]
  2. Delivered-To: [email protected]
  3. Received: (qmail 14341 invoked from network); 28 Oct 2005 06:52:05 -0000
  4. Received: from mismailer2.verisign.com (HELO mismailer2) (65.205.251.72) by qmail-d.directi.com with SMTP; 28 Oct 2005 06:52:05 -0000
  5. Received: from gravity.verisign.com (gateway1.verisign.com [65.205.251.51] by mismailer2 (Postfix) with ESMTP id 3B33751AE1B for [[email protected]]; Thu, 27 Oct 2005 23:52:04 -0700 (PDT)
  6. Received: (from [email protected]) by gravity.verisign.com (8.12.8/8.12.8) id j9S6q3hV009117 for [email protected]; Thu, 27 Oct 2005 23:52:03 -0700 (PDT)
  7. Date: Thu, 27 Oct 2005 23:52:03 -0700 (PDT)
  8. Message-Id: [[email protected]]
  9. To: [email protected]
  10. From: “VeriSign Inc.” [[email protected]]
  11. Subject: Thanks for Downloading Your Guide – (OP21767985)
  12. Content-Type: text

The most important header field for tracking purposes is theReceived header field, which usually has pattern similar to:

Received: from BBB (dns-name [IP address]) by AAA ...

Every time an email moves through a new mail server, a new Received header line (and possibly other header lines, like line 3 above) are added to the beginning of the header’s list. This is similar to FedEx package tracking, when your package enters a new sorting facility and is ‘swiped’ through a tracking machine.

This means that as you read the Received headers from top to bottom, that you are gradually moving closer to the computer/person that sent you the email.

You also need to consider the possibility that the sender added one or more false Received header lines to the list (at the time, the senders beginning of the list) in an attempt to redirect you to another location and prevent you from finding the true sender.

The syntax of the from token in the Received Header mostly looks like:

name (dns-name [ip-address])
Where:
“name” is the name of the computer.
“dns-name” is the reverse DNS lookup on the IP address.
“IP address” is the IP address of the computer used to connect to the mail server that generated this Received header line. So, the IP address is the one which helps us to track the culprit.

The by token syntax just provides us with the name of the mail server. An important point is to pay attention to the trail of IP addresses in from tokens and not necessarily the host name provided to us in the by tokens. The host name could easily be a forged one!

Determine IP Address of the sender

Using the example email headers above and analyzing the Received header lines we can conclude:

  • An NII employee ([email protected]) received an email (line 2)
  • which came from mismailer2.verisign.com (line 4) and received by qmail-d.directi.com
  • which came from gateway1.verisign.com (line 5; line 6 confirms)
  • which came from [email protected] (line 6)
  • but whose IP-address used was 65.205.251.51 (line 5)

Voila, we have just tracked this email to the source IP Address – 65.205.251.51

The final step is to map the identified domains to their corresponding IPs and verify the IPs in the header. For this you need a DNS resolver program. If you haven’t got one of your own, you can use the DNS Lookup service at www.dnsstuff.com A whois on qmail-d.directi.com gives the following result and confirms that it’s the NII mail server from where I downloaded the e-mail:
Registrant: Direct Information Pvt. Ltd
Domain Manager ([email protected])

A whois on the IP address 65.205.251.51 confirms the origin of the mail and also gives the location of the IP address:
Location: United States [City: San Jose, California]
NOTE: More information appears to be available at NET-65-205-248-0-1.
UUNET Technologies, Inc. UUNET65 (NET-65-192-0-0-1) 65.192.0.0 - 65.223.255.255
Verisign UU-65-205-248 (NET-65-205-248-0-1) 65.205.248.0 - 65.205.251.255

A domain name whois gives a lot more information including the address of Verisign Inc. as well as the Administrative contact and Technical contact for the domain. An alternative to the manual whois would be to use sophisticated tools. The preferred ones are SmartWhois by Tamosoft(www.tamos.com) and WhereisIP by JufSoft (www.jufsoft.com)

The second alternative is to use an email analysis tool which will automatically analyze an email and its headers and provide a report similar to the following:

Email Procedure
Figure 2: eMailTracker Report

What If…

I do not have the full headers?
If you do not have an actual email message, but only have an email address, you can trace the address of its email server. However it should be noted that email addresses can be easily forged, the results from tracing an email address may not be related to the true sender.

The sender was using a dynamic IP address?
The time and date on which the message was sent is included in the headers (line 6). Even if the culprit was using dynamic IP, you can check with the ISP for their DHCP logs on the date and time the e-mail was sent. That would lead you to the person/organization to whom the IP was leased for that duration.

Conclusion

Once you have identified the IP address of the sender’s computer, the sender’s geographical location, and the company providing Internet service (or ISP) for the IP address, you should report the incident to the appropriate authorities. There are two possible outcomes of the above trace. You’ll either have an address of a company’s mail server, or the address of a dial-up port. Either way, you may want to contact the responsible administrator. Reports for email abuse such as spam, email-borne viruses and email threats should be directed to the sender’s ISP if it was from a dial-up port. If it was from a company’s mail server, then the contact received from the “whois” on the company’s domain should help you to contact the concerned authority for handling e-mail abuse.

11 Comments

  1. Only good as far as it goes , As a Long term cypherpunk type II and type III remailers make this sort of tracing possible to only the exit remailer. Same comment for tor/yahoo / tor/hotmail tor/webmail combinations. Tracing is only possible to the exit node AND if the sender has employed antiforensics to his imaps, smtp and http/https protocol streams via privoxy and similar tools and used firefox/thunderbird combinations(1.5 does remote/tor dns via socks 5 protocol) then identification of the original sender is impossible using the above techniques.

    And I noticed remailers/proxies and Anonymity tools/antiforensics were NOT addressed at all via the article. A update to the article addressing these issues would be very nice to see.

    The Article layout and text were on the other hand extremely clear and easy to read/understand.

    so well written as far as it goes but you need to raise the bar as forensics specialists are liable to encounter the above technologies more and more as time goes on

    regards
    gwen hastings – cypherpunk

  2. Dear Mr. Gupta,
    Interesting and helpful article for all…individuals/corportates.
    would like to convey my thanks for publshing such articles..though i have not been able to grasp everything but yeah..certainly it aroused my interest to do some R& D over this…
    Thanks & Regards
    Poonam Sharma

  3. Dear Sir:

    I have recieved a few threating emails and I would like to have them traqced to the owners physical address. If i send to you the emails can you provide me with this information

    Respectfully;

    David Coxe

  4. Hey and what abt Tracing GMAIL, did u happen to find the encryption used to obscure the Sender’s IP…

    Please update ur post including the GMAIL…

    Thanks

  5. Hi there,
    Can anybody help me please? . I received blackmail email from website called “enote”, it’s anonymous and I need to find out location from which that email was sent over to me. If I have a full header from that email will I be able to track this person down using eMailTrackerPro?
    I appreciate your help a lot,
    Margaret

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