This tutorial was posted by Jim Dennis to the Procmail mailing list. It is used here with his permission but on the FAQ maintainer's responsibility. Typos and other feedback pertaining to this HTML version should go to me


From: Jim Dennis 
Subject: Re: Quick Start with PROCMAIL
To: [email protected] (Tom Held)
Date: Sat, 28 Dec 1996 18:14:24 -0800 (PST)
Content-Type: text
> I have a somewhat urgent need to start using procmail to bounce unwanted mail (harassment) back to its source, with a few lines of warning text. I understand from my ISP's tech spt that procmail is ideal for this (among many other things). They have version 3.11pre3 installed.
Your ISP is very astute.
> I would really appreciate some quick-start help getting this set up, then I'll fine tune and expand my use of procmail later, and when proficient, come in here and help other newbies.
I'll presume you have a shell account with your ISP. Log in and issue the command man procmailex

This will show you the procmail examples page. There are a couple of other manual pages for procmail. Usually you can issue the command man -k procmail to find the rest of them.

> I am familiar with the concepts of filtering mail, if using Eudora's filters can qualify for that. ...
Here's the short form for how procmail works:
Unix mail systems consist of MTA's (mail transport agents like sendmail, smail, qmail mmdf etc), MDA's (delivery agents like sendmail, deliver, and procmail), and MUA's (user agents like elm, pine, /bin/mail, mh, Eudora, and Pegasus).

On most Unix systems on the Internet 'sendmail' is used as an integrated transport and delivery agent. 'sendmail' and compatible MTA's have the ability to dispatch mail through a custom filter or program through either of two mechanisms: aliases and .forwards.

The aliases mechanism uses a single file (usually /etc/aliases or /usr/lib/aliases) to redirect mail. This file is owned and maintained by the system administrator. Therefore you (as a user) can't modify it.

The ".forward" mechanism is decentralized. Each user on the system can create a file in their home directory named .forward and consisting of an address, a filename, or a program. Usually the file must be owned by the user or root and must not be "writeable" by other users (good versions of sendmail check these factors for security reasons).

It's also possible, with some versions of sendmail, for you to specify multiple addresses, programs, or files, separated with commas. However we'll skip the details of that.

You could forward your mail through any arbitrary program with a .forward that consisted of a line like:

Note the quotes and the "pipe" character. They are required.

Now -- rather than saddling you with all details for how "your.program" would have to work -- what format sendmail would pass information to you, how you would return values to sendmail, how you'd handle file locking (in case more mail came in while you were processing the last one, etc) -- we'll move along to procmail specifically.

What I've discussed so far is the general information that applies to all sendmail-compatible MTA/MDA's.

One note that is well worth making is that although sendmail is designed and often run as an integrated transport and delivery, it's possible to configure a system to use procmail as the delivery agent (most of the popular Linux distributions default to this configuration, including Slackware, Red Hat, and Caldera).

In this scenario sendmail passes local mail to procmail. This makes things marginally easier as we'll soon see.

Assuming that your ISP is not so configured, you must create a .forward file to get sendmail to pass each incoming mail to procmai.

Here's the canonical example, pasted right out of the man pages:

    "|IFS=' '&&exec /usr/local/bin/procmail -f-||exit 75 #YOUR_USERNAME"
This seems awfully complicated compared to my earlier example. That's because my example was flawed for simplicity's sake.

What this mess means to sendmail (paraphrasing into English) is:

Pipe the mail to the following command(s):

Set the "inter-field seperator" (IFS) to a space, and -- if that went O.K. (&&) execute the program named "/usr/local/bin/procmail"

(yours may need to be different -- someone at primenet should tell you where their copy of procmail is installed, or you can try the command which procmail to see if it's on the patch or locate procmail if they are maintaining a file locator database).

The procmail program is being passed a set of switches: "-f-" which tells it to "update timestamp in the leading the 'From' line in the header"

(this last bit is rather obscure and has to do with how messages are normally stored in your "incoming" or mail file or "spool" as we Unix hacks like to call it).

The next part of this .forward command is the Bourne shell's "||" operator which is basically a continuation from the "and" (&&) operator that we used before. It says "or" (if that command didn't work -- i.e. it returned any error) than "exit" (stop processing) and return an error number 75 (which we presume is meaningful to sendmail -- the program that called this command).

The last part of this .forward expression is a comment which, according to the man pages,

is not actually a parameter that is required by proc- mail, in fact, it will be discarded by sh before procmail ever sees it; it is however a necessary kludge against overoptimising sendmail programs:
(quoting from it)
You should just change the phrase YOUR_NAME to your login name on that system.
This complicated line can be just pasted into most .forward files, minimally edited and forgotten.

If you did this and nothing else your mail would basically be unaffected. procmail would just append new messages into your normal spool file.

If your ISP uses procmail as its local delivery agent then you can skip the whole part of about using the .forward file -- or you can use it anyway.

In either event the next step to automating your mail handling is to create a .procmailrc file in your home directory. You could actually call this file anything you wanted -- but then you'd have to slip the name explicitly into the .forward file (right before the "||" operator). If you use .procmailrc than procmail will default to using it.

Now we can get to a specific example. So far, all we've talked about it how everything gets routed to procmail -- which mostly involves sendmail and the Bourne shell's syntax. Almost all sendmails are configured to use /bin/sh (the Bourne shell) to interpret alias and .forward "pipes."

So, here's a very simple .procmailrc file:

This just appends an extra copy of all incoming mail to a file named mail.backup in your home directory.

Note that a bunch of environment variable are preset for you.

The :0 line marks the beginning of a "recipe" (procedure, clause, whatever). :0 can be followed be any of a number of "flags." There is a literally dizzying number of ways to combine these flags. The one flag we're using in this example is 'c' for "copy."

The way procmail works is to start parsing it's set of recipes from the beginning of the .procmailrc file, through any INCLUDE'd files until a message has been "delivered" (or "disposed of" as the case may be). Any recipe can be a "disposition" or "delivery" of the message. As soon as a message is "delivered" then procmail closes its files, removes its locks and exits.

If procmail reaches the end of its rc file (and thus all of the INCLUDE'd files) without "disposing" of the message -- than the message is appended to your spool file (which looks like a normal delivery to you and all of your "mail user agents" like Eudora, elm, etc).

This explains why procmail is so forgiving if you have no .procmailrc. It simply delivers your message to the spool because it has reached the end of all its recipes (there were none).

The 'c' flag causes a recipe to work on a "copy" of the message -- meaning that any actions taken by that recipe are not considered to be "dispositions" of the message.

Without the 'c' flag this recipe would catch all incoming messages, and all your mail would end up in mail.backup. None of it would get into your spool file and none of the other recipes would be parsed.

The next line in this sample recipe is simply a filename. Like sendmail's aliases and .forward files -- procmail recognizes three sorts of disposition to any message. You can append it to a file, forward it to some other mail address, or filter it through a program.

Actually there is one special form of "delivery" or "disposition" that procmail handles. If you provide it with a directory name (rather than a filename) it will add the message to that directory as a separate file. The name of that file will be based on several rather complicated factors that you don't have to worry about unless you use the Rand MH system, or some other relatively obscure and "exotic" mail agent.

A procmail recipe generally consists of three parts -- a start line (:0 with some flags) some conditions (lines starting with a '*' -- asterisk -- character) and one "delivery" line which can be file/directory name or a line starting with a '!' -- bang -- character or a '|' -- pipe character.

Here's another example:

			* ^From.*[email protected]
This is a simple one consisting of no flags, one condition and a simple file delivery. It simply throws away any mail from "someone I don't like." (/dev/null under Unix is a "bit bucket" -- a bottomless well for tossing unwanted output. DOS has a similar concept but it's not nearly as handy).

Here's a more complex one:

			* !^X-Loop: [email protected]
			| $HOME/bin/my.script
This consists of a set of negative conditions (notice that the conditions all start with the '!' character). This means: for any mail that didn't come from a "daemon" (some automated process) and didn't come from a "mailer" (some other automated process) and which doesn't contain any header line of the form: "X-Loop: myadd...", send it through the script in my bin directory.

I can put the script directly in the rc file (which is what most procmail users do most of the time). This script might do anything to the mail. In this case -- whatever it does had better be good because procmail will consider any such mail to be delivered and any recipes after this will only be reached by mail from DAEMON's, MAILER's and any mail with that particular X-Loop: line in the header.

These two particular FROM_ conditions are actually "special." They are preset by procmail and actually refer to a couple of rather complicated regular expressions that are tailored to match the sorts of things that are found in the headers of most mail from daemons and mailers.

The X-Loop: line is a normal procmail condition. In the RFC822 document (which defines what e-mail headers should look like on the Internet) any line started with X- is a "custom" header. This means that any mail program that wants to can add pretty much any X- line it wants.

A common procmail idiom is to add an X-Loop: line to the header of any message that we send out -- and to check for our own X-Loop: line before sending out anything. This is to protect against "mail loops" -- situations where our mail gets forwarded or "bounced" back to us and we endlessly respond to it.

Finally we've gotten to the stage where we can give you the particular example that you asked for. First we start a recipe with:

... then we add the one condition you've described
		* ^From.*[email protected]
(you'll have to change the address to suit your case).
... and we add a couple of conditions to avoid looping and to avoid responding to automated systems
... and one more to prevent some tricky loop:
			* !^X-Loop: [email protected]
... now we add a "disposition" -- the autoresponse.
			| (formail -rk \
				-A "X-Loop: [email protected]" \
				-A "Precendence: junk"; \
			   echo "Please don't send me any more mail";\
			   echo "This is an automated response";\
			   echo "I'll never see your message";\
			   echo "So, GO AWAY" ) | $SENDMAIL -t -oi
This is pretty complicated -- but here's how it works:
The pipe character tells procmail that it should launch a program and feed the message to it.

The open parenthesis is a Bourne shell construct that groups a set of commands in such a way as to combine the output from all of them into one "stream." We'll explain this more later.

The 'formail' command is a handy program that is included with the procmail package. It "formats" mail header according to its command line switches and its input.

-rk tells 'formail' to format a "reply" and to "keep" the message body.

The -A parameters tells formail to "add" the next parameter as a header line. The parameters provided to the -A switch must be enclosed in quotes so the shell treats the whole string (spaces and all) as single parameters.

The backslashes at the end of each line tell procmail mail to treat the next line as part of this one. So, all of the lines ending in backslashes are passed to the shell as one long line.

This "trailing backslash" or "line continuation" character is a common Unix idiom found in a number of programming languages and configuration file formats.

The semicolons tell the shell to execute another command -- they allow several commands to be issued on the same command line.

Each of the echo commands should be reasonably self-explanatory. We could have used a 'cat' command and put our text into a file if we wanted. We can also call other programs here -- like 'fortune' or 'date' -- and their output would be combined with the rest of this).

Now we get to the closing parenthesis. This marks the end of the block of commands that we combined. The output from all of those is fed into the next pipe -- which starts the local copy of sendmail (note that this is another variable that procmail thoughtfully presets for us).

The -t switch on sendmail tells it to take the "To:" address from the header of its input (where 'formail -r' put it) and the -oi switch enables the sendmail "option" to "ignore" lines that consist only of a 'dot' (don't worry about the details on that).

This is basically the recipe you want. Obviously it has to be modified a bit. That's why I've gone to such elaborate lengths to explain how it all works.

Most of the difficulty in understanding procmail has nothing to do with procmail itself. The intricacies of regular expressions (those weird things on the '*' -- conditional lines) and shell quoting and command syntax, and how to format a reply header that will be acceptable to sendmail (the 'formail' and 'sendmail' stuff) are the parts that require so much explanation.

> This system works very well, but anyone who knows how to read the message header of the reply can see that their messages are from Eudora, and therefore are getting to my system, and they probably figure the messages are being read anyway. This tends to encourage, rather than discourage them.
Or they know that it's taking up diskspace on your provider and bandwidth and time on your phone.

It sounds like you should also consider contacting the postmaster at this person's ISP. If the person harassing you is the postmaster (or owner) of the domain from which this harassment is occuring you can contact the postmaster at the site which provides MX and DNS services to them (look in 'whois' for that or continue to complain to the postmaster at your site (primenet).

Note that, in some jurisdictions, you may also have legal recourse. I believe there was a decision last year that held that e-mail is legally equivalent to a fax machine -- and there are laws regarding unsolicited faxes. You may want to search the web for some details and talk to a lawyer.

I've found that a message to the effect that:

Your message to me was unsolicited and not relevant to any of my personal or business activities. Please don't not send me any more mail. Any further mail from you will be considered harassment and may result in legal actions against your and/or your e-mail provider.
... sent to the offender and his/her postmaster is very effective. I don't ever remember getting hit by the same spammer twice when I've fired off one of these.
> I'd like to make this filtering (just for this one type of message) and autoresponse happen on the server, so the messages don't even get to my system.
That's what procmail is for.
> I am somewhat familiar with UNIX (was a self-taught UNIX System Administrator by necessity at one job for a year and a half). I use some UNIX when telnetting to my home directory - created a .plan file, can get around in the command prompt (ksh), have transferred files, and have several web pages. So, at least I'm not a totally ignorant novice.
I did go into quite a bit of additional detail for the benefit of the rest of the list -- and anyone in the future who bothers to check the archives before they post.

I'm currently writing a book (actually revising one into a second edition) on the subject of Unix System Administration. I've also casually discussed writing a book on procmail and SmartList with O'Reilly & Associates and Stephen.

This message will go into my archives where parts of it may be used in either or both of these projects.

> Not to be critical of all the very fine work, but the procmail man page and what I've seen on Alan Stebbens' E-Mail Software Page are not geared for someone in my position. They, like so much documentation out there, are good as a reference for someone who already knows how to do it - and could be used to get started after a very lengthy analysis and study of the mass of technical information.
The best info on mailbots that I've found used to be maintained by Nancy McGough (sp??) at the Infinite Ink web pages:
> To me, a recipe is something used in the kitchen, not on my computer - and I haven't seen anything out there that simply tells you what a procmail recipe really is and where it goes (recipe is just one example), so you can at least get an idea of what's going on.
I hope that, after reading this, you can't say that any more.
> I need to get my feet wet with a simple installation, get an overall understanding of how the whole thing is structured, then build on it gradually. Can someone help?
I hope I have. If you really get stuck give me a call -- I also do consulting and have written auto-responders for companies like "Cybermedia" (publishers of First Aid for Windows).

Mail to [email protected] will get a response. (Not a terribly well written response -- just something I tossed together in less than a tenth of the time I just spent on this e-mail. If I needed more work I'd spend more time on that and my web pages).

> Thank you very much in advance.
You're welcome.