When you are the most popular content management system in the world 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 by hackers wanting to score a “big win”.
In April 2013 a worldwide brute-force attack began hitting WordPress installations across virtually every host server in existence around the world.
These attacks were caused by computer networks infected with viruses and programmed to attack other computers, also commonly known as “botnets”.
Brute Force Attacks – Definition
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 will attempt to break into a WordPress site is by trying to guess the site’s administration login username and password. This can be achieved with scripts and tools that automatically tries to guess hundreds of possible login combinations in minutes.
If you’re using weak user names and passwords, your website can be easily hacked by repeated attempts to guess your site’s login details.
This is called a “brute force” login attack.
Botnet – What Is This?
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 software, which can then be controlled remotely as a group, typically without the computer owners even being aware that this is happening.
Botnets are normally used used to send out mass spam emails.
The screenshot below was taken from a site that monitors online security showing the locations of the command centers of ZeuS – a botnet that has been actively infecting computer networks all around the globe since 2009 …
(The Zeus botnet has been actively infecting computer networks all around the globe since 2009. Screenshot image: SecureList.com)
These were well organized and highly distributed botnet attacks. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by a number of web hosting companies just in the initial attack, when millions of attempts to force their way into WordPress site admin areas took place. The large-scale attack then continued, with over 30,000 WordPress sites being hacked every day.
News of the mass brute-force botnet attack was reported by all of the major web hosting companies, as well as the leading technology media publications, such as Forbes, TechNews Daily, PC Magazine, BBC News, Tech Crunch, and even on the official US Department of Homeland Security website …
(WordPress often is targeted by hackers)
Does This Mean WordPress Is Not Secure And We Should Stop Using It?
No. In fact, there are many very good reasons why you should choose WordPress if you are concerned about the security of your website.
To learn why WordPress is a secure platform for websites, read this article: WordPress Security What Every Business Owner Needs To Know
It’s important to understand that, in the case of April 2013 mass brute force botnet attack described above, was no specific vulnerability in WordPress being exploited (the same script was also attacking sites built using other platforms like Joomla).
Mike Little, the co-founder of WordPress, said this about the brute-force 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.
Protecting Your WordPress Blog From Brute-Force Attacks – Ten Security Checks
Every web site with a vulnerability provides some type of opportunity to hackers. If you think that your website or blog is of no interest to hackers, think again. Large, medium and small websites, personal blogs, government websites … even websites owned by web security experts can and have been targeted.
If someone can find a weakness in your security, the website can then be employed as part of a larger network of bots to target larger and more highly-valued websites.
Additional undesirable consequences of having your site hacked include being blacklisted by search engines, having spam links advertising things like viagra, cheap offers on brand names, etc. inserted in your content and meta data, malicious redirects to phishing sites or other websites, drive-by downloads (adding malware on your visitors’ computers), and lots of other nasties.
The reality is that hackers are probably scouring for vulnerabilities and trying to hack into your web site at this very moment. Whether they can do this successfully depends on how challenging you will make it for hackers to keep persisting until they discover how to get in, or give up and go look for a less protected target.
How Much Information Are You Broadcasting To Hackers About Your Site?
If you visit a site like Hackertarget.com and run your site through their WordPress security scan …
(WP Security Check Source: https://hackertarget.com/wordpress-security-scan)
you will see that the check will yield various results and details about your website …
(WordPress security scan results. Image source: Hackertarget.com)
It should be obvious after using the tool shown above that if you are able to freely access all of this information about your blog, then so can hackers.
The ability to see what version of WordPress you are using, which plugins and themes you have installed on your site, and which files have been uploaded to certain directories in your site can all be valuable information to hackers, as these can inform them about any security weaknesses, especially in older versions.
If your website is driven by WordPress and you are not taking precautionary steps to toughen up your site, 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 installations worldwide!
Whenever a website or blog is hacked, website owners will find themselves locked out of their own site, or notice that their files have been interfered with 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 this has taken place.
To help avoid the heartache that comes with discovering that your website has been hacked into, we have listed below 10 essential and effective security checks that will help to prevent your WordPress site from being attacked by brute force botnet hacking attempts.
Note: Some of the recommended measures below require some technical understanding of how to modify core WordPress and/or server files. If you lack these technical skills, or don’t want to mess around with file code, then ask your web host or a professional WordPress technical provider for help.
Security Measure #1 – Get In Touch With Your Hosting Provider
Get in touch with your web host and ask them exactly what measures have been put in place to protect your site from botnet attacks, and what is done to make sure that your server files and data get regularly backed up.
Check that your hosting service provider backs up your server files and that, if disaster strikes, you can easily get back your site.
Security Measure #2 – Back Up Your WordPress Data And Files And Keep Your Site Regularly Up-To-Date
Never rely just on your hosting provider for your site backups. Instead, learn how to maintain your WordPress site or get this service done for you and maintain a habit of performing a complete WordPress site maintenance routine frequently (e.g. daily, weekly, fortnightly, etc )
- All unnecessary files and data are removed,
- All WordPress files and data are free of errors, optimized and backed up,
- All WordPress software, themes and plugins are up-to-date,
- etc …
Again, I cannot stress enough how vitally important maintaining your WordPress site backed up and up-to-date is. WP site maintenance is not hard to do 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, pay someone to do it but make sure this gets done. Backing up your website is the next most important thing you must do after making sure that you are still breathing!
If you don’t want to back up your data manually, there are a number of plugins you can use. Learn about a WordPress backup plugin that can fully automate your backup process here: Backup, Copy And Protect Your WP Sites With Backup Creator Plugin For WP
Security Measure #3 – Do Not Use “Admin” As A Username
The large scale brute-force botnet attack on WordPress is mostly attempting to compromise website administrator panels by exploiting WP sites with “admin” as the username.
For website security reasons, never install sites with the username “admin”. This is the first area of potential vulnerability hackers will test. If your site’s user name is admin, change this immediately.
For a detailed tutorial that shows you how to change your username, go here: Changing Your WordPress User Name From Admin To A Different User Name
Security Measure #4 – Your Password
A brute force attack occurs when malicious software continually tries to guess the right username and password character string that will give the hacker entry to your site.
Unless some measure is put into place to prevent the brute force attack from happening (see further below for a couple of effective ways to do this), the bot will just continue to attack your site until it eventually breaks into your admin area.
Passwords that are easy to guess, therefore, are really easy targets for hackers. Make sure that you change your password combination to something containing at least 8 characters long, with both upper and lowercase letters, combined with a few special characters (^%$#&@*).
If you have trouble coming up with strong passwords or feel reluctant to set up different passwords for all your online logins, then use a password software tool like Roboform …
(Roboform is a password management tool that lets you easily generate strong passwords)
For a detailed step-by-step tutorial for admin users on how to change your admin password, go here: Changing Your Password
Security Measure #5 – Secure Your WP Config File
The wp-config.php file contains important information about your site’s database and is used to define advanced WordPress options.
(WP Config file)
If hackers break into your website, they will typically search for your wp-config.php file, because this is the file that contains your database information, security keys, etc. Getting access to this information would allow a hacker to change anything in your database, create a user account, upload files and take control of your site.
To protect your WordPress site from being attacked and even being used as part of a bot net, therefore, you must prevent your wp-config.php file from being accessed. 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 your install.php, upgrade.php and readme.html files.
These files are not required after installation. If you don’t want to remove these files, just rename them.
Security Measure #7 – Keep Your WordPress Blog, Themes And Plugins Up-To-Date
Hackers look for vulnerabilities they can exploit in earlier versions of WordPress, including outdated versions of WP plugins and themes.
Make sure to keep your software files, plugins, themes, etc. up-to-date.
Security Measure #8 – Disable The Theme Editor
WordPress installations come with a built-in editor that lets administrators edit theme and plugin code inside the dashboard area.
You can access the WordPress Theme Editor by selecting Appearance > Editor in the main menu …
(Accessing the WordPress theme editor via the main menu)
The WordPress theme editor allows anyone accessing your site’s admin area to view and edit your WordPress theme template files, or cause mayhem on your site.
If you want to prevent unauthorized people from accessing the WordPress Theme editor, you will need to disable it. This can be done by adding code to your wp-config.php file.
Security Measure #9 – Secure The WordPress Uploads Directory
The WordPress “uploads” directory stores all the media files that get uploaded to your site.
By default, this folder is visible to online users. All a person needs to do to view the contents in your uploads folder is visit your directory using their web browser …
(WordPress has an uploads folder where media content is stored)
If any files stored in his folder have weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious users, this could become a serious threat to the security of your website.
Protecting your directories will prevent unauthorized people 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 a file with nothing in it called “index.php”) to your uploads directory, and so on. Again, it’s best to seek professional help if you are unsure about what to do.
Security Measure #10 – Install WordPress Security Plugins
There are some great WordPress security plugins available that specifically address many common security issues faced by WordPress site owners, such as preventing hackers from gaining access to vital information about your site, protecting your site from malicious exploits, preventing injections of code into files, and so on.
Most WordPress plugins address some but not all areas of WordPress security. One security plugin that does a comprehensive job of scanning, fixing and preventing issues that could lead to hackers accessing your files and causing damage to your site is SecureScanPro.
(SecureScanPro – complete security software solution for WordPress)
SecureScanPro is easy to install and easy to use, and fixes most of the security areas that WordPress users need to address.
Another plugin you may want to look at using is BlogDefender.
Blog Defender Security Product Suite For WordPress Sites
Blog Defender is a suite of WordPress security video tutorials, plugins and tools, plus WordPress security documentation in PDF and DOC formats.
BlogDefender shows you where potential security weaknesses in your web site are …
And lets you quickly fix these …
WordPress is a secure web platform, but neglecting basic maintenance tasks like updating your WordPress software, WordPress plugins and WordPress themes, tightening file and data security and taking other necessary precautions can expose your site to attacks 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 website security.
As a final reminder, below is the advice given by a security expert to all WordPress users following the global brute-force attacks 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 very important if you run a WordPress site. Hopefully the information in this article will help prevent brute-force attacks on your WordPress site.