Unchecked Return Value to NULL Pointer Dereference

The product does not check for an error after calling a function that can return with a NULL pointer if the function fails, which leads to a resultant NULL pointer dereference.


While unchecked return value weaknesses are not limited to returns of NULL pointers (see the examples in CWE-252), functions often return NULL to indicate an error status. When this error condition is not checked, a NULL pointer dereference can occur.


The following examples help to illustrate the nature of this weakness and describe methods or techniques which can be used to mitigate the risk.

Note that the examples here are by no means exhaustive and any given weakness may have many subtle varieties, each of which may require different detection methods or runtime controls.

Example One

The code below makes a call to the getUserName() function but doesn't check the return value before dereferencing (which may cause a NullPointerException).

String username = getUserName();
if (username.equals(ADMIN_USER)) {

Example Two

This example takes an IP address from a user, verifies that it is well formed and then looks up the hostname and copies it into a buffer.

void host_lookup(char *user_supplied_addr){

  struct hostent *hp;
  in_addr_t *addr;
  char hostname[64];
  in_addr_t inet_addr(const char *cp);

  /*routine that ensures user_supplied_addr is in the right format for conversion */

  addr = inet_addr(user_supplied_addr);
  hp = gethostbyaddr( addr, sizeof(struct in_addr), AF_INET);
  strcpy(hostname, hp->h_name);


If an attacker provides an address that appears to be well-formed, but the address does not resolve to a hostname, then the call to gethostbyaddr() will return NULL. Since the code does not check the return value from gethostbyaddr (CWE-252), a NULL pointer dereference (CWE-476) would then occur in the call to strcpy().

Note that this example is also vulnerable to a buffer overflow (see CWE-119).

See Also

SEI CERT C Coding Standard - Guidelines 03. Expressions (EXP)

Weaknesses in this category are related to the rules and recommendations in the Expressions (EXP) section of the SEI CERT C Coding Standard.

CERT C++ Secure Coding Section 08 - Memory Management (MEM)

Weaknesses in this category are related to rules in the Memory Management (MEM) section of the CERT C++ Secure Coding Standard. Since not all rules map to specific wea...

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

This view (slice) covers all the elements in CWE.

Weaknesses without Software Fault Patterns

CWE identifiers in this view are weaknesses that do not have associated Software Fault Patterns (SFPs), as covered by the CWE-888 view. As such, they represent gaps in...

Named Chains

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