WordPress is the world’s most used CMS which makes it an easy target for hacking attacks.
In early 2013 a mass brute-force attack hit WordPress installations across almost every WP hosting server in existence around the world.
These attacks were caused by botnets (computers infected with viruses and programmed to attack other sites with security vulnerabilities).
How To Protect Your WordPress Site From A Brute-Force Attack
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)
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 with software tools that can work through hundreds of possible logins in minutes.
If you’re using easy-to-guess usernames and predictable passwords, your website could be an easy target for hacking attempts.
This is called a “brute force” login attack.
Botnets – What Are They?
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 infected with malicious software, which can then be controlled remotely as a group, typically without the unsuspecting computer owners even being aware that this is happening in their machine.
Botnets are often used to blast mass spam emails.
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 …
(The Zeus botnet has been actively compromising computer networks all around the world since 2009. Screenshot source: SecureList.com)
The botnet attacks on WordPress were highly distributed and well organized. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by several hosting companies in the initial attack alone, when the web was flooded with millions of attempts to force their way into WordPress users administration areas. The worldwide attacks then continued, with over 30,000 WordPress blogs being hacked every day.
Coverage of the mass brute force attack was reported by all of the major webhosting companiesand 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 is the world’s most popular content management system making it an obvious target for hacking attempts)
Does This Mean We Shouldn’t Use WordPress Anymore?
No. In fact, there are lots of great reasons why you should continue using WordPress if you are concerned about the security of your web presence.
We explain why WordPress is a secure platform for websites in this article: Is WordPress A Secure Website Platform?
It’s important to note that, in the case of April 2013 brute force attack described above, there was no WordPress vulnerability being exploited (the same script was also targeting sites built using platforms like Joomla).
Mike Little, one of the co-founders 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 Site From Brute Force Attacks – 10 Security Points
You may think that your website or blog offers no value to hackers, but the reality is that all websites are valuable to a malicious user.
If a hacker can access and remotely control your website, that website or blog can then be employed as a “bot” to attack more highly-valued websites.
Additional undesirable effects of having your website hacked and your site security compromised include being blacklisted by Google, having stealthy spam links advertising things like gambling, porn, etc. in your content and meta data, malicious redirects to phishing sites and other websites, data exfiltration (stealing information or Personal Identifiable Information from your web applications), and lots of other nasty things.
The truth is that malicious bots are most likely trying to break into your site as you are reading this article at this very moment. Whether they can hack in or not, depends on how difficult you have made it for them to continue trying until they find how to get in, or give up and decide to look for a less secure target.
How Much Information About Your Site Are You Broadcasting To Hackers?
If you visit a site like Hackertarget.com and run your site through their WordPress security scan …
(Hackertarget – WordPress Security Scan Product image: Hackertarget.com)
You will see that the test will return various results and information about your site …
(WP security check results. Image source: Hackertarget.com)
It should be obvious after using the scanning tool that if you are able to see all of this information, hackers can too.
(Screenshot image: BlogDefender site)
Being able 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 potentially valuable information to hackers, as this can inform them about any vulnerabilities, especially in older versions.
If your website is driven by WordPress and you’re not preventive steps to bullet-proof your site, it’s practically guaranteed that, at some point, your site will be hacked, or at least targeted by bots, because these attacks are systematically hitting WordPress sites all the world!
When a site gets broken into, website owners can find themselves completely “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their content has been modified or even entirely wiped out. Typically, most sites will be infected with malicious scripts without the owner’s knowledge or awareness.
To help avoid the heartache and frustration of having your web site being hacked into, below are 10 essential and effective security checks that will help to prevent your WordPress site from botnet attacks.
Note: A few of the steps below require some technical skills to modify core WordPress and/or server files. If you lack these technical skills, or don’t want to mess around with code on your site, then ask your web host or a professional WordPress service provider for help.
Security Measure #1 – Contact Your Webhosting Service
Contact your webhosting provider and ask them what security precautions they offer to help prevent your site from brute force attacks, and what they do to make sure that your server files and data get backed up.
It’s important to check that your webhosting service provider regularly backs up your server files and that, if disaster strikes, you can quickly and easily recover your site.
Security Measure #2 – Back Up Your WordPress Data And Files And Keep Your Site Frequently Updated
You should never rely only on your hosting provider for site backups. Instead, learn how to maintain and manage your WordPress site or pay someone to get this done for you and maintain a habit of performing a full site maintenance routine on a frequent basis (e.g. weekly, fortnightly, etc …)
A full WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:
- All unnecessary data and files are deleted,
- All WordPress files and data are free of errors, optimized and backed up,
- All software, plugins and themes are up-to-date,
- etc …
A complete WordPress maintenance routine looks like this …
(Maintaining your WordPress site regularly backed up and up-to-date is vitally important for WordPress security. Image: WPTrainMe.com)
Again, we cannot stress enough how vitally important maintaining your WP installation completely backed up and up-to-date is. WordPress maintenance is not hard to do or time-consuming, but it must be done to ensure the security of your website. If you don’t 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 website is the second most important thing you should do after making sure that you are still breathing!
If you don’t want to perform manual backups, there are a number of plugins you can use. You can read about a WordPress backup plugin that can fully automate your site backups here: Backup, Clone & Keep Your WP Site Protected With Backup Creator Plugin For WordPress
Security Measure #3 – Make Sure That Your Username Is Not “Admin”
The large scale brute force attack on WordPress is mostly attempting to compromise site admin panels and gain access to sites by exploiting WordPress sites that used “admin” as the account name.
For website security purposes, never set up 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 will should change this immediately.
We have created a simple tutorial on how to change your username here: How To Change Your Admin User Name In WordPress
Security Measure #4 – Choose Strong Passwords
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 website.
Unless you put some measure in place to prevent the brute force attack from happening (see further below for a couple of simple and effective suggestions for doing this), the “bot” will just keep attacking your site until it eventually works out the combination.
Passwords that are easy to guess, therefore, become very easy targets for botnets. 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, and “special” characters (%^#$@&*).
You can use a password management program like Roboform to generate difficult passwords …
(Roboform is a password software that lets you easily generate secure passwords)
For a tutorial for admin users on how to change your login password, go here: How To Reset A Password In WordPress
Security Measure #5 – Prevent Access To Your wp-config.php File
The wp-config.php file contains information about your website’s database and is used to define advanced WordPress options.
If hackers break into your website, they will typically try to access the wp-config.php file, because this is the file that contains important information about your site’s database, 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.
In order to protect your WordPress site from being attacked and even being used as part of a bot net, therefore, you must prevent people from accessing 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 Site Installation Files
Rename or delete the install.php, upgrade.php and readme.html files from your server.
These files can be deleted after installation. If you don’t want to delete these files, just rename them.
Security Measure #7 – Keep Your WordPress Blog, Themes And Plugins Up-To-Date
Hackers search for vulnerabilities in previous versions of WordPress that can be exploited, including out-of-date versions of themes and plugins.
Ensure that all of your WordPress application files, themes, plugins, etc. are always up to date.
Security Measure #8 – Disable Your WordPress Theme Editor
WordPress installations come with a built-in editor feature that allows you to edit theme and plugin files from the dashboard.
You can access the WordPress Theme Editor by selecting Appearance > Editor in your admin menu …
(The WordPress theme editor is accessible using the dashboard menu)
The WordPress theme feature lets anyone accessing your blog view and edit your WordPress theme template files, or create 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 – Prevent Access To The WordPress Uploads Directory
The “uploads” folder stores all the media files that get uploaded to your site.
By default, this folder is visible to anyone online. All someone has to do to view the contents stored in your site’s “uploads” folder is navigate to your directory using their browser …
(WordPress has an uploads folder where all of your media files are stored)
If any files stored in his folder have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious users, this could compromise the security of your website.
Protecting your directories will prevent unauthorized people from accessing 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 – WordPress Security Plugins
There are several WordPress security plugins available that specifically address common security issues WordPress website owners face, such as preventing unauthorized users from gaining access to vital information about your site, protecting your site from malicious exploits, preventing unauthorized file uploads, etc.
Many 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 website files and causing damage to your site is SecureScanPro.
(SecureScanPro – WP security software)
SecureScanPro is easy to install and easy to use, and does a great job of addressing most of the security areas that WordPress users need to address.
Another great plugin you may want to look at using is BlogDefender.
Blog Defender Security Product Suite For WordPress Blogs
(Blog Defender WordPress Security Solution)
This product is a suite 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 WordPress installation are …
And then shows you how to easily fix these …
If you don’t want to purchase a premium security plugin like SecureScanPro or BlogDefender, then use various free plugins, such as Limit Login Attempts …
WordPress is a secure platform, but neglecting simple maintenance tasks like making sure that your WordPress installation, WordPress plugins and WordPress themes are kept up-to-date, tightening file and data protection and taking other necessary precautions can have disastrous consequences.
No matter what type of business you run or plan to run online and how small you think your web presence is, you cannot ignore the importance of website security.
As a final reminder, below is the advice given by an expert on web security to all WordPress users following the large-scale brute force attacks by botnets on WordPress in April 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 keep your WordPress site protected from brute-force attacks. If you need any further help or assistance with WordPress security, please consult a professional WordPress security specialist, or search for a WordPress technical provider in our WordPress Services Directory.
Also, please remember to subscribe to WPCompendium.org to be notified via email whenever we publish new information on WordPress security and reviews of WordPress security plugins.
"This is AMAZING! I had learnt about how to use WordPress previously, but this covers absolutely everything and more!! Incredible value! Thank you!" - Monique, Warrior Forum