When you are the world’s leading CMS platform and the online publishing platform of choice used by millions of websites and loved by thousands of web developers and website designers, it’s inevitable that at some point in time, WordPress will come under attack from hackers wanting to score a “big win”.
In 2013, WordPress installations around the world were subjected to large-scale brute force attacks.
These attacks were caused by botnets (networks of infected computers programmed to attack other vulnerable computers).
A brute-force attack is a technique used to break an encryption or authentication system by trying all possibilities.
(Source: Chinese University Of Hong Kong)
One of the many ways hackers use to try and break into WordPress sites is by trying to guess the site admin’s login username and password. This is achieved with software tools that can guess hundreds of login combinations in minutes.
If you’re using obvious login details, your website could be easily hacked by repeated attempts to guess your site’s login details.
This is called a “brute-force” attack.
A botnet is a number of Internet-connected computers communicating with other similar machines in an effort to complete repetitive tasks and objectives. This can be as mundane as keeping control of an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel, or it could be used to send spam email or participate in distributed denial-of-service attacks. The word botnet is a combination of the words robot and network.
“Botnets” are networks of private computers that have been infected with malicious code, which are then controlled remotely as a group, often without the unsuspecting computer owners even being aware that this is going on.
Botnets are regularly used to send mass spam emails.
Below is a screenshot taken from an online security monitoring site showing the locations of the command centers of ZeuS – a botnet that has been actively infecting computer networks all around the globe since 2009 …
(ZeuS is a botnet that has been actively compromising computer networks all around the world since 2009. Screenshot: SecureList.com)
These were well organized and highly distributed attacks. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by several hosting companies just in the initial attack, when the web was flooded with millions of attempts to force their way into WordPress user administration areas. The worldwide brute force attacks then continued, with over 30,000 WordPress blogs being hacked each day.
Coverage of this mass brute-force attack was reported by all of the major webhosting companiesand leading technology publications, such as Forbes, TechNews Daily, BBC News, PC Magazine, Tech Crunch, and even on the official website of the US Department of Homeland Security …
(Being the world’s most used CMS makes WordPress an obvious target for hacker attacks)
Does This Mean We Should Stop Using WordPress?
No. In fact, there are lots of very good reasons why you should choose WordPress if you are concerned at all about the security of your online presence.
To learn what makes WordPress a very secure web platform, read this article: Are Open Source CMS Platforms Like WordPress Secure?
It’s important to understand that, in the case of the brute force attack described above, no specific WordPress vulnerability was being exploited (the same script was also targeting sites built using other web applications like Joomla).
Mike Little, one of the co-founders of WordPress, said this about the botnet attacks:
It is a “simple” script that attempts to login using the admin login and a generated password. So if your password is too short or based on dictionary words it will be guessed and then the script can login legitimately and do whatever it wants including installing scripts (as plugins) or editing files. The attack tries to guess your password, if it succeeds, the most secure site in the world is wide open because they have your password.
How To Protect Your WordPress Blog From Being Brute-Force Attacked – 10 Security Measures
You may think that your site has nothing to offer to hackers, but the reality is that every website has value to a malicious user.
If a hacker can find a software security flaw, your web site can then be used as part of a larger network of “bots” to target larger and more valued sites.
Additional undesirable consequences of having your site hacked include being blacklisted by search engines, having stealthy spam links advertising things like viagra, cheap offers on brand names, etc. in your content, malicious redirects to phishing sites, drive-by downloads (adding malicious software on your visitors’ computers), and lots of other nasties.
The reality is that software-driven bots are most likely trying to break into your website at this very moment. Whether they will break in or not, depends on how challenging you have made things for them to keep trying until they can work out a way to get access, or give up and go look for a less protected target.
How Much Information Are You Broadcasting To Hackers About Your WordPress Site?
Does your website run on WordPress? If so visit Hackertarget.com and run your site through their WordPress security scan …
(WP Security Check Image source: Hackertarget.com)
You will see that the scan will display a number of results and information about your website setup …
(WP security scan results. Screenshot source: Hackertarget.com)
It should be obvious after using the tool shown above that if you are able to see all of this information, then so can hackers.
(Product image: BlogDefender website)
The ability to see what version of WordPress you are using, which plugins and themes you have installed, and which files have been uploaded to certain directories in your site are all valuable information to hackers, as this can inform them about any potential holes or weaknesses, especially where site owners haven’t updated their software versions.
If your website is powered by WordPress and you’re not preventive steps to bolster the security of your site, then it’s practically guaranteed that, at some point in time, your site will be hacked, or at least targeted by bots, because these brute force attacks are systematically targeting WordPress sites worldwide!
When a website or blog gets broken into, blog owners can discover much to their dismay that they have been “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their files have been altered or even that their content has been entirely wiped out. Typically, sites will be infected with malicious software or viruses without the owner even being aware that a breach has taken place.
To help avoid the heartache (and significant financial loss) of discovering that your web site has been hacked into, below are ten simple, yet essential and effective security checks that will help to protect your WordPress site from being brute force attacked.
Note: Some of the recommended measures shown below need some technical understanding of how to modify core WordPress and/or server files. If you have no web skills, or don’t want to mess around with file code, then contact us, or ask your web host or a professional WordPress service provider for help.
Security Measure #1 – Get In Touch With Your Webhosting Service Provider
Get in touch with your hosting company and ask them exactly what security measures have been put in place to protect your site from brute force attacks, and what they do to ensure that your files and data get regularly backed up.
Check that your host backs up your server files and that, if disaster strikes, you can quickly and easily get your site back.
Security Measure #2 – Perform Complete WordPress Backups And Keep Your Site Frequently Updated
Never rely on your host for site backups. Instead, learn how to manage your WordPress site or get this service done for you and develop a habit of performing a complete site maintenance routine frequently (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly, etc …)
A full WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:
- All unnecessary data and files are deleted,
- All WordPress data and files are free of errors, optimized and backed up,
- All WordPress software, plugins and themes are up-to-date,
- etc …
A complete WordPress maintenance routine looks like this …
(Maintaining your WordPress website frequently backed up and up-to-date is vitally important for WordPress security. Source: WPTrainMe.com)
Again, we cannot stress enough how important maintaining your WP website or blog frequently backed up and up-to-date is. WordPress site maintenance is not hard or time-consuming, but it must be done to ensure the security of your website or blog. If you don’t want to learn how to do WordPress site maintenance yourself, get someone else to do it but make sure this gets done. Backing up your website is the second most important thing you must do after making sure that your heart is still beating!
If you don’t want to back up your data manually, there are many WordPress plugins you can use. Learn about a WordPress backup plugin that can automate your site backups here: Backup, Duplicate And Keep Your WordPress Websites Protected With Backup Creator WP Plugin
Security Measure #3 – Do Not Use “Admin” As Your Admin Username
The large scale brute-force attack on WordPress is mostly attempting to compromise site admin panels and gain access to sites by exploiting WP installations that used “admin” as the account name.
For reasons of website security, never set up sites with the username admin. This is the first area of potential vulnerability hackers will test. If your site’s user name is admin, then make sure you change it immediately.
For a detailed step-by-step tutorial created especially for WordPress admin users that shows you how to change your username, go here: How To Change Your Admin User Name In WordPress
Security Measure #4 – Use Strong Passwords
A “brute force” attack occurs when a malicious script persistently hits a username and password field with different strings of characters trying to guess the right login combination that will unlock your site.
Unless you put some measure in place to prevent the brute force attack (see further below for a couple of effective suggestions for doing this), the “bot” will just persist in attacking your site until it eventually gets access.
Weak passwords, therefore, become really easy targets for botnets. Make sure that you change your password to something that is at least eight or nine characters long, and that includes upper and lowercase letters, combined with “special” characters (e.g. %, $, *, etc).
Roboform is a password management program you can use to help you generate different secure login passwords …
(Roboform is a password software that lets you create different strong login passwords)
For a simple step-by-step tutorial created especially for WordPress users on how to change your login password, go here: How To Change WordPress Passwords
Security Measure #5 – Deny Access To Your WP Config File
The wp-config.php file allows WordPress to communicate with the database to store and retrieve data and is used to define advanced options for WordPress.
If hackers break into your WordPress site, they will search for the wp-config.php file, because this is the file that contains your WordPress database information, security keys, etc. Getting access to this information would allow someone to change anything in your database, create a user account, upload files and take control of your site.
To protect your WordPress site from attacks and even being used as part of a bot net, therefore, prevent people from being able to easily find your wp-config.php file. This requires knowing how to edit database information, move files around in your server and changing access permissions.
Security Measure #6 – Delete Or Rename Unnecessary Website Installation Files
Rename or delete the install.php, upgrade.php and readme.html files from your server.
These files are not required after installation and can be removed. If you don’t want to delete these files, just rename them.
Security Measure #7 – Keep Your WordPress Files, Themes And Plugins Up-To-Date
Hackers are always on the lookout for vulnerabilities in earlier versions of WordPress that can be exploited, including outdated versions of themes and plugins.
Ensure that all of your software files, plugins, themes, etc. are always up to date.
Security Measure #8 – Disable Your WordPress Theme Editor
WordPress installations come with a built-in editor feature that lets the administrator edit plugin and theme files inside the dashboard area.
In WordPress, you can access your WordPress Theme Editor by selecting Appearance > Editor from the dashboard menu …
(The WordPress theme editor is accessible via the dashboard menu)
The WordPress theme editor lets anyone accessing your blog view and change your theme templates, and create mayhem on your site.
If you want to prevent unauthorized people from being able to access the WordPress Theme editor, you will need to disable it. This can be done by editing your wp-config.php file.
Security Measure #9 – Protect The Site’s Uploads Folder
The WordPress “uploads” folder contains all the media files that get uploaded to your WordPress site.
Normally, this folder is visible to anyone online. All a person needs to do to view all of the contents in the “uploads” folder is visit the directory using their web browser …
(WordPress uploads directory)
If any directories in your website have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious users, anyone could upload unauthorized file types or compromise the security of your website.
Protecting your directories will prevent online users from viewing your ‘uploads’ folder and other important directories. This can be done using plugins, setting file permissions, adding a blank index.php file (this is literally an empty file called “index.php”) to your uploads directory, and so on. Again, it’s best to ask for assistance from someone with experience if you are unsure about what to do.
Security Measure #10 – WordPress Security Plugins
Some great security plugins for WordPress are available that specifically address common security issues WordPress website owners face, such as preventing hackers from gaining access to vital areas of your site, protecting your website from malicious software, preventing unauthorized file uploads, etc.
Many WordPress plugins address some but not all areas of WordPress security. One security plugin that seems to do a comprehensive job of scanning, fixing and preventing issues that could lead to hackers accessing your files and damaging your site is SecureScanPro.
(SecureScanPro – total security software for WordPress)
SecureScanPro is easy to install and easy to use, and fixes most of the security issues that WordPress users need to address.
Another great plugin you may want to look at using is BlogDefender.
Blog Defender WordPress Security Plugin
(Blog Defender Security Suite)
Blog Defender is a package of WordPress security video tutorials, WordPress plugins and tools, plus WordPress security documentation in PDF and DOC formats.
BlogDefender shows you where potential security holes in your web site are …
And lets you easily fix these …
WordPress is a very secure web platform, but neglecting essential maintenance tasks like keeping your WordPress software, plugins and WordPress themes up-to-date, tightening file and data security and taking other necessary precautions can expose your website to malicious by hackers and bots.
Regardless of the type of business you run or plan to run online and how small you think your web presence is, you cannot afford to ignore the importance of securing your sites.
As a final reminder, below is the advice given by a website security expert to all WordPress users following the large-scale brute-force attacks by botnets on WordPress in 2013 …
Owners of websites based on WordPress CMS must improve at least basic security settings and implement best practices such as the use of robust passwords and the accurate management of “admin” accounts.
Pierluigi Paganini, Chief Information Security Officer, Security Affairs
As you can see, WordPress security is of the utmost importance if you run a WordPress site. Hopefully this information will help prevent brute-force attacks on your WordPress site. If you need any further help or assistance with WordPress security, please contact us or consult a professional WordPress security specialist.
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