When you are the most popular CMS platform in the world and the preferred online publishing platform used by millions of businesses and loved by thousands of website developers and web designers, it’s inevitable that at some point in time, WordPress will become an easy target for attacks by hackers wanting to score a “big win”.
In 2013 a worldwide brute-force attack struck WordPress installations on virtually every web host in existence around the world.
These attacks were caused by botnets (computers infected with malware and programmed to attack other computers with security vulnerabilities).
How To Protect Your WordPress Site From A Brute-Force Attack
About Brute-Force Attacks
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 WordPress sites. One of these is by trying to guess the site’s administration login username and password. This can be done using software tools that automatically tries to guess hundreds of login combinations in minutes.
If you’re using easy-to-guess usernames and predictable passwords, your site could be an easy target for hacking attempts.
This is called a “brute force” attack.
What Are Botnets
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 computers that have been compromised and infected with malicious code or scripts, which are then controlled remotely as a group, typically without the unsuspecting computer owners’ knowledge.
Botnets are regularly used to send mass spam emails from the infected computers of compromised user accounts.
The screenshot below was 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 world since 2009 …
(The Zeus botnet has been actively infecting computer networks all around the world since 2009. Image source: SecureList.com)
These botnet attacks are well organized and highly distributed. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by a number of hosting companies in the initial attack, when the web was flooded with millions of attempts to force their way into WordPress user admin areas. The mass brute force attacks continued after this, with over 30,000 WordPress blogs being hacked per day.
News of this large-scale brute-force botnet attack was widely reported in all of the major webhosting companiesand leading technology media publications, such as Forbes, TechNews Daily, BBC News, Tech Crunch, PC Magazine, and even on the official US Department of Homeland Security website …
(WordPress is often the target of worldwide malicious attacks 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 use WordPress if you are concerned about website security.
We explain why WordPress is a secure platform for websites in this article: Why WordPress Is A Secure Platform For Websites –
It’s important to understand that, in the case of April 2013 worldwide brute-force attack described above, there was actually no WordPress vulnerability being exploited (the same script was also attacking sites built using other applications like Joomla).
Mike Little, the co-founder of WordPress with Matt Mullenweg, 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 Prevent Your WordPress Blog From Being Brute Force Attacked – Ten Security Measures
Every website with a security vulnerability can be an opportunity to hackers. A vulnerable site provides malicious users with a resource for launching denial of service attacks, spreading malware and engaging in information theft.
If hackers can hack into and remotely take control of your website, that site can then be employed as a “bot” to attack more valued sites.
Additional undesirable impacts of having your website hacked include being blacklisted by search engines, having spammy links promoting things like online meds, porn, etc. inserted into your content and meta data, redirecting visitors to phishing sites, data exfiltration (stealing information or Personal Identifiable Information from your web applications), and many other nasty things.
The harsh reality is that brute-force software bots are very likely trying to hack into your blog while you are reading this page at this very moment. Whether they can break into your site successfully will depend on how hard or easy you will make things for them to continue persisting until they discover a way to get access, or are forced to give up and go look for a less protected target.
How Much Information Are You Broadcasting To Hackers About Your Site?
If you visit Hackertarget.com and run your site through their WordPress security scan …
You will see that the check will display various results and information about your website …
(website security scan results. Screenshot source: Hackertarget.com)
It should be obvious after using the tool shown above that if you are able to access all of this information about your website, then hackers can too.
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 on your server are all useful information to hackers, as these can inform them about any exploitable holes or weaknesses, especially in older versions.
If your site or blog is powered by WordPress and you’re not proactive steps to bolster the security of your site, it’s practically guaranteed that, at some time in the near future, someone will attempt to hack your website, because these attacks are systematically targeting WordPress installations 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 modified or even that their content has been completely wiped out. Typically, sites will become infected with malicious scripts without the owner even being aware that a security breach has taken place.
To help avoid the heartache and frustration that comes with having your website being hacked into, we have listed below 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 steps shown below need some technical understanding of how to modify core WordPress and server files. If you have no technical skills, or don’t want to mess around with code on your site, then ask your web host or a professional WordPress technical provider for help.
Security Measure #1 – Get In Touch With Your Host
Get in touch with your webhosting company and ask them exactly what precautions they have put in place to protect your site from brute force attacks, and what is done to ensure that your WordPress sites get backed up.
It is important to check that your webhosting company regularly backs up your server files and that, if anything goes wrong, 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
You should never rely just on your webhosting company 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 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 deleted,
- All WP files and data are free of errors, optimized and backed up,
- All WP software, plugins and themes are up-to-date,
- etc …
A full WP site maintenance routine looks like this …
(Maintaining your WP installation regularly backed up and updated is vitally important for WordPress security. Image source: WPTrainMe.com)
Again, we cannot stress enough how important maintaining your WordPress website backed up and up-to-date is. WP maintenance is not hard to do 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 WordPress site maintenance yourself, pay a professional to do it but make sure this gets done. Backing up your site is the second most important thing you must do after making sure that you still have a pulse!
If you don’t want to perform manual backups, there are many free and paid WordPress plugins you can use. Learn about a WordPress backup plugin that can fully automate your site backups here: Back Up, Clone And Keep Your WordPress Websites And Blogs Protected With Backup Creator WordPress Plugin
Security Measure #3 – Do Not Use “Admin” As Your Admin Username
The large scale brute-force attack on WordPress sites was mostly attempting to compromise website admin panels by exploiting WP sites with “admin” as their account name.
For security reasons, never set up a WordPress site with the username admin. This is the first area hackers will test. If your site’s username is “admin”, then change this immediately.
For a tutorial that shows you how to change your admin username, go here: Changing Your Admin Username In WordPress To Another Username
Security Measure #4 – Use Strong Passwords
A “brute force” attack occurs when a malicious script continually tries to guess the right combination of password and username characters 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 simple and effective ways to do this), the “bot” will just keep attacking your site until it eventually gets access.
Passwords that are easy to guess, therefore, make very easy targets for hacking attacks. Make sure that you change your password to something that is at least eight or nine characters long, with upper and lowercase letters, combined with “special” characters (%^#$@&*).
Roboform is a password program that lets you create really secure passwords …
(You can use a password management program like Roboform to generate really secure passwords)
For a detailed step-by-step tutorial on how to change your password, go here: Changing Your WordPress Password
Security Measure #5 – Protect 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 your wp-config.php file, because this is the file that contains your WordPress database details, 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.
In order 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 – Rename Or Delete Unnecessary Blog Installation Files
Delete or rename the install.php, upgrade.php and readme.html files from your server.
These files are completely unnecessary after installation and can be removed. If you don’t want to remove these files, then just rename them.
Security Measure #7 – Keep Your WordPress Blog, Plugins And Themes Up-To-Date
Hackers search for vulnerabilities they can exploit in outdated versions of WordPress, including out-of-date versions of plugins and themes.
Ensure that all of your WordPress software files, plugins, themes, etc. are always up to date.
Security Measure #8 – Disable The Theme Editor
WordPress installations come with a built-in editor that allows site administrators to edit plugin and theme code from the dashboard.
In WordPress, you can access the WordPress Theme Editor by selecting Appearance > Editor in your admin menu …
(Accessing the WordPress theme editor using the admin menu)
This allows anyone accessing your blog’s admin area to view and make changes to all of your theme files, and cause mayhem on your site.
To prevent people from being able to access your 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 – Protect Your WordPress Uploads Directory
The WordPress “uploads” folder stores all the media that gets uploaded to your website.
Normally, this folder is visible to online users. All someone has to do to see all of the contents stored in the “uploads” directory is visit the directory using a web browser …
(WordPress uploads folder)
If any files stored in his folder have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers or malicious users, anyone could upload unauthorized file types to your site.
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 a file with nothing in it named “index.php”) to your uploads directory, and so on. Again, it’s best to ask help from someone with experience if you are not sure about what to do.
Security Measure #10 – Install Security Plugins
There are a number of WordPress security plugins available that specifically address most common security issues WordPress site owners face, such as preventing hackers from accessing your site, protecting your files from botnets, preventing unauthorized file uploads, etc.
Most WordPress plugins address some but not all areas of WordPress security. One WordPress plugin that does a comprehensive job of scanning, fixing and preventing issues that could lead to hackers accessing your site files and causing irreparable damage to your site is SecureScanPro.
(SecureScanPro – total security plugin for WordPress)
SecureScanPro is easy to install and easy to use, and takes care of most of the security issues that WordPress users need to address.
Another plugin you may want to consider using is BlogDefender.
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 scans you WordPress installation for potential security weaknesses …
WordPress is a very secure platform, but neglecting basic maintenance tasks like making sure that your WordPress core files, WordPress plugins and WordPress themes are kept updated to their latest versions, tightening file and data security and taking other necessary precautions can expose your website to malicious by hackers and bots.
No matter what kind of business you run or plan to run online and how small you think your web presence is, securing your web site is something you cannot ignore.
As a final reminder of the importance of keeping your websites protected, below is the advice given by an expert on website security to all WordPress users following 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 of the utmost importance if you run a WordPress site. Hopefully, the above information will help 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 professional WordPress technical provider in our WordPress Services Directory.
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