WordPress is frequently the target of attacks by hackers.
In 2013, WordPress installations around the world were subjected to large-scale brute-force attacks.
These attacks were caused by infected computer networks programmed to attack other vulnerable sites (botnets).
How To Protect Your WordPress Site From A Brute-Force Attack
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)
There are many ways hackers try to break into a WordPress site. One of these is by trying to guess the site admin’s login username and password. This is achieved with software programs that can guess hundreds of login possibilities in minutes.
If you’re using weak user names and passwords that are easy to guess, your website could be an easy target for hackers.
This is called a “brute force” login attack.
What Is A Botnet?
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.
A “Botnet” is a network of private computers that have been infected with malicious scripts or software, which are then controlled remotely as a group, often without the unsuspecting computer owners even being aware that this is happening.
Botnets are typically used to blast mass spam emails from the infected computers of compromised user accounts.
Below is a screenshot taken from a site that monitors online security showing the locations of the command centers of ZeuS – a botnet that has been actively compromising computer networks all around the globe since 2009 …
(ZeuS is a botnet that has been actively compromising computer networks all around the globe since 2009. Screenshot source: SecureList.com)
These botnet attacks on WordPress sites were highly distributed and well organized. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by a number of webhosting companies just in the initial attack, when millions of attempts to force their way into WordPress site admin areas took place. The worldwide attack then continued, with over 30,000 WordPress sites and blogs being hacked every day.
News of the mass brute-force botnet attack was reported by all the major webhosting companies, as well as the leading technology media 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 …
(Powering millions of websites and blogs around the world makes WordPress a target for hacking attacks)
Does This Mean We Shouldn’t Use WordPress Anymore?
No. In fact, there are lots of great reasons why you should use WordPress if you are concerned at all about the security of your web presence.
To learn what makes WordPress a very secure platform for websites, read this article: Is WordPress A Secure Website Platform?
It’s important to note that, in the case of the worldwide brute-force botnet attack described above, was no specific vulnerability in WordPress being exploited (the same script was also targeting sites built using applications 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.
How To Protect Your WordPress Blog From Brute-Force Attacks – 10 Security Points
Every website or blog with a security vulnerability offers potential value to hackers. No blog is safe from a cyberattack. Large, medium and small sites, personal blogs, government web sites … even websites owned by online security and anti-hacking experts can and have been targeted.
If hackers can find a web security flaw, that website can then be used to attack more valued web sites.
Additional undesirable consequences of having your site hacked and your site security compromised include being blacklisted by Google, having spammy links advertising things like gambling, discounted fashion, etc. inserted in your content and page title and descriptions, redirecting visitors to phishing sites or other websites, drive-by downloads (adding malicious software on your visitors’ computers), and many other nasty things.
The truth is that software-driven bots are most likely trying to hack into your blog while you are reading these very words. Whether they can achieve this will depend on how challenging you have made it for them to continue trying until they find a way to get access, or are forced to give up and go look for a more vulnerable target.
How Much Information About Your Site Are You Broadcasting To Hackers?
Do you own a WordPress site? If so, visit a site like Hackertarget.com and run your website through their WordPress security check …
You will see that the test returns various results and details about your website …
(Hackertarget – WP security scan results. Product 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 WordPress site, hackers can too.
Being able to see which 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 on your server are all potentially useful information to hackers, as this informs them about any security weaknesses, especially where site owners haven’t updated their sites.
If your site or blog is powered by WordPress and you’re not preventive steps to bolster the security of your site, then we can practically guarantee that, at some point, your site will be hacked, or at least targeted by bots, because these attacks are systematically hitting WordPress installations worldwide!
Typically, when a site is compromised, blog owners will find themselves “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their files have been modified or even that their content has been entirely wiped out. Typically, most compromised sites will be infected with malicious scripts or viruses without the owner even being aware that this has occurred.
To help avoid the heartache and aggravation (and potential loss of valuable business data) of having your site being hacked into, we have listed below 10 simple, yet essential and effective security measures that will help to protect your WordPress site from being attacked by brute-force botnets.
Note: A few of the recommended measures below require some technical understanding of how to modify core WordPress and/or server files. If you have no web coding skills, or don’t want to mess around with code on your site, then ask your web host or search for a WordPress technical provider in our WordPress Services Directory.
Security Measure #1 – Contact Your Webhosting Company
Contact your webhosting provider and ask them exactly what precautions are in place to help prevent your site from being attacked, and what they are doing to make sure that your files and data get backed up.
It is important to make sure that your host backs up your server files and that, if disaster strikes, you can easily recover your files and data.
Security Measure #2 – Back Up Your WordPress Data And Files And Keep Your Website Frequently Updated
Never rely on your hosting provider for site backups. Instead, learn how to maintain and manage your WordPress site or get this service done for you and maintain a habit of performing a complete site maintenance routine on a frequent basis (e.g. weekly, fortnightly, etc …)
A proper WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:
- All unnecessary data and files are removed,
- All data and files are free of errors, optimized and backed up,
- All WP software, plugins and themes are up-to-date,
- etc …
A proper WP maintenance routine looks like this …
(Maintaining your WordPress website backed up and updated is vitally important for WordPress security. Image: WPTrainMe.com)
Again, we cannot stress enough how vitally important it is to maintain your WP website backed up and updated. WordPress maintenance is not hard or time-consuming, but it must be done to ensure the security of your website. If you do not want to learn how to do WP maintenance yourself, get someone else to do it but make sure this gets done. Backing up your site is the next 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 Protect Your WordPress Web Sites With Backup Creator WP Plugin
Security Measure #3 – Make Sure That Your Username Is Not “Admin”
The brute force attack on WordPress is mostly attempting to compromise website administrator panels and gain access to the site by exploiting sites with “admin” as the account name.
For reasons of website security, avoid setting up WordPress sites with the username admin. This is the first area of potential vulnerability hackers will test. If your blog’s user name is admin, you should change it immediately.
We have created a simple step-by-step tutorial created especially for non-technical WordPress admin users that shows you how to change your WordPress admin username here: Changing Your Admin User Name In WordPress To A More Secure User Name
Security Measure #4 – Avoid Weak Passwords
A “brute force” attack occurs when a malicious script continually and persistently tries to guess the right combination of password and username characters that will unlock your website.
Unless some measure is put into 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 “cracks” the code.
Passwords that are easy to guess, therefore, become really easy targets for bot attacks. Make sure that you change your password combination to a string that contains at least eight or nine characters long, with both upper and lowercase letters, combined with “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 management software tool like Roboform …
(Roboform is a password management tool that lets you generate different strong login passwords)
We have created a simple tutorial created especially for non-technical WordPress admin users that shows you how to change your admin password here: Changing 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.
(WordPress WP Config file)
If a hacker breaks into your WordPress website, they will normally look for the wp-config.php file, because this file contains important information about your site’s database, security keys, etc. Getting access to this information would allow them to change anything in your database, create a user account, upload files and take control of your site.
In order to protect your WordPress site from attacks and even being used as part of a bot net, therefore, prevent people getting to 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 – Rename Or Delete 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 Installation, Themes & Plugins Up-To-Date
Hackers look for vulnerabilities they can exploit in previous WordPress versions, including out-of-date versions of plugins and themes.
Make sure to keep all of your application files, themes, plugins, etc. up-to-date.
Security Measure #8 – Disable Your Theme Editor
WordPress comes 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 your main menu …
(The WordPress theme editor can be accessed via the main menu)
This allows anyone accessing your site to view and modify your WordPress theme templates, and cause havoc on your site.
If you want to prevent people from being able to access your WordPress Theme editor, you will need to disable it. This can be done by editing your wp-config.php file.
Security Measure #9 – Remove Access To Your WordPress Uploads Folder
The WordPress “uploads” directory contains all the media that gets uploaded to your blog.
By default, this folder is visible to all users online. All someone has 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 weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious users, this could seriously threaten the security of your site.
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 an empty file called “index.php”) to your uploads directory, and so on. Again, it’s best to ask help from someone who knows what they are doing if you are not sure about what to do.
Security Measure #10 – WordPress Security Plugins
A number of security plugins for WordPress are available that specifically address most common security issues WordPress site owners face, such as preventing unauthorized users from accessing vital areas of your site, protecting your website from malicious exploits, preventing unauthorized file uploads, etc.
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 irreparable damage to your site is SecureScanPro.
(SecureScanPro – total security software for WordPress)
SecureScanPro is easy to install and easy to use, and does a great job of fixing most of the security areas that WordPress users need to address.
Another great security plugin you may want to look at using is BlogDefender.
Blog Defender is a package of WordPress security video tutorials, plugins and tools, plus WordPress security documentation in PDF and DOC formats.
BlogDefender shows you where the security holes in your web site are …
WordPress is a very secure platform, but neglecting basic maintenance tasks like keeping your WordPress software, WordPress plugins and WordPress themes up-to-date, tightening file and data protection and taking other necessary precautions can expose your site to attacks by hackers and bots.
Regardless of the kind of business you run or plan to run online and how small you think your web presence is, you simply cannot ignore the importance of website security.
As a final reminder, below is the advice given by an expert on website security to all WordPress users after the mass 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 has shown you what to do to prevent brute-force attacks on your WordPress site. If you need any further help or assistance with WordPress security, please consult a WordPress security specialist, or search for a WordPress technical provider in our WordPress Services Directory.
We also recommend subscribing to WPCompendium.org to receive notifications via email when we publish new tutorials on WordPress security and reviews of new security plugins.
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