Posted by: Mangesh_Linux_Administrator | November 29, 2010

Mod Security Rules and SPAM

Mod Security Rules and SPAM

ModSecurity is an open source intrusion detection and prevention engine for web applications. Operating as an Apache Web server module, the purpose of ModSecurity is to increase web application security, protecting web applications from known and unknown attacks.

While mod_rewrite is good at rewriting URLs, it’s a very poor choice for fighting spam. It requires quite a lot of obscure commands to block a single URL . mod_security, on the other hand, can block an URL with a single line in your .htaccess file.

Configuring mod_security:

This is how you start mod_security, either in your global Apache configuration, or in a .htaccess file:

SecFilterEngine DynamicOnly
SecFilterScanPOST On
SecAuditLog logs/audit_log

The first line tells Apache to run mod_security, but only on dynamic pages (PHP, CGI scripts, whathaveyou). You can also set it to On instead of DynamicOnly, if you want to scan all requests for all pages.

The second line is where mod_security really starts to trounce mod_rewrite: enable scanning of POST headers. This is something that mod_rewrite is unable to do.

The POST data is the actual data that gets submitted to a web server, such as comment forms . This means that mod_security can filter based on content in the comments, and even in specific fields, if you only want to make a rule based on the author of a comment.

The third line tells Apache where to store the audit log from mod_security. This log file contains everything that mod_security catches, if you have configured it to log that particular rule.

Let’s add a fourth line before we begin the actual block rules: the default action.

SecFilterDefaultAction "deny,log,status:412"

This set the default action for rules that have no action defined, so that you don’t have to re-type the action for every rule. This line sets the default mode to “block the request, log it, and give the client an Error 412.”

I prefer Error 412 (Precondition Failed) over Error 403 (Access Denied). 403 is “You’re not allowed to be here,” while 412 is “We don’t serve your kind here.” 403 is the “Staff only” sign; 412 is the bouncer at the door checking his list of misbehaving persons.

Let’s start blocking!

Now, let’s build some rules. The basic rules have two formats:


This scans the request for PATTERN, and uses the default action if it matches PATTERN. It also accepts an optional ACTION argument, which uses the same format as the SecFilterDefaultAction above. If you have lots of spam to block, it’s easier to define a default action and only use the first version to block spam.

However, it doesn’t scan the POST headers unless we told mod_security to do so. Which we did above. So you could create a rule to stop viagra spam like this:

SecFilter "viagra"

This will block referral spam containing “viagra” in the URL or in a comment (since we enabled POST scans). But since SecFilter scans the entire request, it also checks for it in the user agent field. While I don’t know about any browsers called “Viagra” we can never be sure that they really do exist, and that’s why I prefer to be very specific about what part of the request should be scanned. We really don’t want to block legitimate users by accident, like comments containing “Hey, I get tons of Viagra spam too!”

You can also use regular expressions in the rules:

SecFilter "(viagra|mortgage|herbal)"

If we want to use an action different than the default action, we can do it like this:

SecFilter "viagra" "allow,nolog"

This will allow anything containing “viagra” to pass the filter, and it won’t be logged in the audit log.

Selective blocking

To do a more specific scan, we can use SecFilterSelective instead. It takes the following arguments:


Now we can define what part of the request we want to scan in, by supplying the LOCATION argument before the PATTERN argument. Let’s say we get tons of referral spam by someone pimping his “” site. We can scan in the referral header only and block his entire domain from ever referring us:

SecFilterSelective "HTTP_REFERER" ""

NOTE: As of mod_security 1.8, there is no need to escape dots in domain names. This is managed automatically by mod_security.

Presto! We never see referral spam from that domain again. Note that I did not supply the ACTION argument, since it saves me some typing to let the default action trickle down from the settings above. It also makes it easier to read the rules.

Note, however, that this only blocks referrals from that specific domain. There’s nothing stopping him from referral spamming with “” instead. We can of course use regular expressions here as well:

SecFilterSelective "HTTP_REFERER" "(viagra|mortgage|texasholdem)"

There are many fields you can scan selectively, and you can also define several fields to scan on the same line. Just separate them by commas in the LOCATION argument. For a list of all fields you can scan selectively, please see the reference manual.

Blocking IP addresses

If there’s a specific IP address that hits you especially hard, you can block it by scanning the REMOTE_ADDR header:

SecFilterSelective "REMOTE_ADDR" "^$"

Note that I begin the pattern with ^ and end it with $. These are regular expression special characters that tell it to only match from the beginning of the line, as well as the end of the line. If I didn’t have the starting ^, I would not only block, but also since it contains the same pattern. Using them both means “match the entire line.”

Scanning POST payloads

So far we’ve done the same things that we can do with mod_rewrite, and the only advantage has been that it saved us some typing and resulted in more readable lines. Now for something that mod_rewrite cannot do: scanning POST content!

The POST headers contain the contents of forms that are submitted to the server from the browser. Scanning this means you can scan the contents of comments, and find attempted spam even there. Use the POST_PAYLOAD location to scan:

SecFilterSelective "POST_PAYLOAD" "(mortgage|viagra)"

And now nobody can post comments containing mortgage or viagra any more.

But it doesn’t stop there! You can also scan inside specific arguments in the POST payload. Let’s say we want to allow people to talk about viagra and other spammy words, but disallow those words in the URL field in Movable Type and WordPress. In both of these, the URL field is called url.

SecFilterSelective "ARG_url" "(mortgage|viagra)"

Closing statements

That was a brief introduction to the most useful features of mod_security. Remember to always think about what it is you will really block with the rule you just wrote, and figure out a way to be specific enough without trapping legitimate users.

(Originally posted by


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