How To Protect Your WordPress Site From A Brute-Force Attack

Learn how to protect your WordPress site from being brute-force attacked, or having its security compromised by hackers or bots.

WP SecurityWhen you are the most popular CMS platform in the world and the online publishing platform of choice for millions of businesses and loved by thousands of website developers and web 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 struck WordPress installations on almost every WP host server in existence.

These attacks were caused by computer networks infected with malware and programmed to attack other vulnerable computers, also commonly known as “botnets”.

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 a WordPress site. One of these is by trying to guess the site admin’s login username and password. To do this, hackers use software tools that automatically tries to guess hundreds of possible login combinations in minutes.

If you’re using obvious login details, your website can be an easy target for hackers.

This is called a “brute-force” 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.

(Source: Wikipedia.org)

A “Botnet” is a network of private computers that have been infected with malicious software, which can then be controlled remotely as a group, often without the computer owners’ knowledge or awareness.

Botnets are typically used to blast out mass spam emails.

The screenshot below was taken from a site that monitors online security showing the locations of the command centers of a botnet that has been actively compromising computer networks all around the globe since 2009 called “Zeus” …

ZeuS is a botnet that has been actively infecting computer networks all around the globe since 2009.

(ZeuS is a botnet that has been actively infecting computer networks all around the world since 2009. Screenshot: SecureList.com)

The ongoing botnet attacks on WordPress are well organized and highly distributed. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by several hosting companies in the initial attack, when millions of attempts to force their way into WordPress users admin areas took place. The mass brute force attacks continued after this, with over 30,000 WordPress blogs being hacked per day.

News of this brute force attack was widely reported in all the major webhosting companiesand leading technology publications, such as Forbes, TechNews Daily, Tech Crunch, BBC News, PC Magazine, and even on the official website of the US Department of Homeland Security …

WordPress is the world's most used CMS which makes it an obvious target for hacker attacks

(WordPress is often the target of large-scale attacks by hackers, due to its popularity)

Does This Mean WordPress Is Not Secure And We Should Stop Using It?

No. In fact, there are lots of very good reasons why you should choose WordPress if you are concerned about the security of your online presence.

We explain what makes WordPress a very secure platform for websites in this article: Is WordPress A Secure Website Platform?

Info

It’s important to understand that, in the case of the large-scale brute force attack described above, there was no WordPress vulnerability being exploited (the same script was also attacking 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.

(MikeLittle.org)

Preventing Your WordPress Blog From Brute-Force Attacks – 10 Security Points

Every site with a security vulnerability offers some value to hackers. A vulnerable website provides hackers with a platform to launch DDoS attacks, spread malware and engage in information theft.

If a hacker can find a way to break in and gain remote access and control of your blog, your site can then be used to target more valued web sites.

Additional undesirable impacts of having your website hacked and your site security compromised include getting blacklisted by search engines, having spammy links promoting things like casinos, porn, etc. inserted in your content and meta data, malicious redirects to phishing sites, data exfiltration (stealing customer details or Personal Identifiable Information from your web applications), and many other nasty things.

The harsh reality is that hackers are probably searching for exploits and trying to hack into your site at this very moment. Whether they will achieve this or not, depends on how difficult you will make it for hackers and botnets to continue trying until they work out a way to break in, or are forced to decide to look for a more vulnerable target.

How Much Information About Your WordPress Site Are You Broadcasting To Hackers?

Does your website run on WordPress? If so visit a site like Hackertarget.com and run your website through their WordPress security check …

WordPress Security Check(Hackertarget – WP Security Check Source: Hackertarget.com)

You will see that the check will yield a number of results and information about your WordPress setup …

Hackertarget - WP Security Scan

(WP security check results. Screenshot source: Hackertarget.com)

It should be obvious after using the tool shown above that if you can access all of this information, then so can hackers.

WordPress Security Check(Screenshot image: Blog Defender)

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 these can inform them about potentially exploitable security vulnerabilities, especially in older versions.

If your website runs on WordPress and you’re not preventive steps to harden your site, we can practically guarantee that, at some time in the near future, someone will attempt to hack your site, because these brute force attacks are systematically hitting WordPress sites all the world!

Whenever a website is broken into, site owners will discover much to their dismay that they have been “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their files have been interfered with or that everything has been entirely wiped out. Often, most sites will be infected with malicious software or viruses without the owner even being aware that this has taken place.

To avoid the heartache and aggravation that comes with having your website or blog being hacked into, we have listed below 10 simple, yet essential and effective security checks that will help to prevent your WordPress site from brute force botnet attacks.

Important Info

Note: A few of the measures shown below need some technical skills to modify core WordPress and server files. If you have no technical skills, or don’t want to mess around with file code, then ask your web host or search for a professional WordPress technical provider in our WordPress Services Directory.

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Security Measure #1 – Get In Touch With Your Webhosting Service

Get in touch with your webhosting service and ask them what security systems they have put into place to help prevent your site from botnet attacks, and what is done to ensure that your server files get backed up.

Make sure that your web host regularly backs up your server files and that, if disaster strikes, you can easily get your files and data back.

Security Measure #2 – Perform Full WordPress Backups And Keep Your Site Regularly Up-To-Date

You should never rely on your webhosting provider for your site backups. Instead, learn how to manage your WordPress site or get this done for you and develop a habit of performing a complete WordPress site maintenance routine on a frequent basis (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly, etc …)

A proper WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:

  • All unnecessary files and data are removed,
  • All files and data are free of errors, optimized and backed up,
  • All themes, plugins and software components are up-to-date,
  • etc …

A proper WordPress maintenance routine looks like this …

Maintaining your WordPress site regularly backed up and up-to-date is vitally important for WordPress security.(Maintaining your WordPress web site regularly backed up and up-to-date is vitally important for WordPress security. Screenshot: WPTrainMe.com)

Again, we cannot stress enough how vitally important maintaining your WordPress installation completely backed up and up-to-date is. WordPress 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 WP site maintenance yourself, pay someone to do it but make sure this gets done. Backing up your site is the second most important thing you should do after making sure that you are still breathing!

If you don’t want to back up your site manually, there are many plugins you can use. Learn about a WordPress backup plugin that can fully automate your site backups here: Back Up, Clone & Keep Your WP Sites Protected With Backup Creator WP Plugin

Security Measure #3 – Do Not Use “Admin” As A Username

The mass brute-force botnet attack on WordPress is mostly an attempt to compromise website admin panels and gain access to the site by exploiting sites that used “admin” as their account name.

For reasons of website security, avoid installing WordPress sites with the username admin. This is the first thing hackers will test. If your site’s user name is “admin”, change it immediately.

We have created a simple step-by-step tutorial on how to change your login username here: How To Change Your WordPress User Name From Admin To A More Secure User Name

Security Measure #4 – Use A Strong Password

A “brute force” attack occurs when a malicious script continually and persistently hits a login or password field with different character strings in an attempt to guess the right login combination that will give the hacker entry to your website.

Unless some measure is put into place to stop the brute-force attack (see further below for a couple of effective suggestions for doing this), the “bot” will just keep attacking your site until it eventually breaks into your admin area.

Passwords that are easy to guess, therefore, become very easy targets for botnets. Make sure that you change your password combination to something that contains at least eight characters long, with both upper and lowercase letters, and add a few “special” characters (^%$#&@*).

Practical Tip

If you have trouble coming up with strong passwords or are reluctant to set up different passwords for all your online logins, then use a password software tool like Roboform …

Roboform is a password software you can use to generate really secure passwords(Roboform is a password management tool that lets you create strong login passwords)

We have created a step-by-step tutorial created especially for WordPress admin users that shows you how to change your admin password here: Changing Your Password In WordPress

Security Measure #5 – Prevent The wp-config.php File From Being Easily Accessible

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

(wp-config.php)

If hackers break into your site, 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, you must prevent your wp-config.php file from being easily 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 Installation Files

Delete or rename the install.php, upgrade.php and readme.html files from your server.

These files are not required after installation. If you don’t want to delete these files, just rename them.

Security Measure #7 – Keep Your WordPress Files, Plugins And Themes Up-To-Date

Hackers look for vulnerabilities in older versions of WordPress that they can exploit, including out-of-date versions of WordPress themes and plugins.

Ensure that all of your WordPress application files, plugins, themes, etc. are always up to date.

Security Measure #8 – Disable The WordPress Theme Editor

WordPress comes with a built-in editor that lets administrators edit plugin and theme files from the dashboard.

You can access your WordPress Theme Editor by selecting Appearance > Editor from your admin menu …

WP Theme Editor Menu

(The WordPress theme editor is accessible via the dashboard menu)

This allows anyone accessing your blog to view and edit your WP theme template files, and cause mayhem on your site.

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 WordPress Uploads Folder

The “uploads” folder stores all the media that gets uploaded to your blog.

Normally, this folder is visible to anyone online. All a person needs to do to view all of the contents stored in your “uploads” folder is visit the directory using their browser …

(WordPress has an uploads folder where media content is stored)

(WordPress uploads directory)

If any files stored in his folder have weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious users, someone can upload unauthorized file types or compromise the security of your site.

Protecting your directories will prevent online users from accessing your ‘uploads’ folder and other important directories. This can be done using plugins, setting file permissions, uploading a blank index.php file (this is literally an empty file named “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 WordPress security plugins are available that will address most common security issues faced by WordPress site owners, such as preventing hackers from gaining access to vital areas of your site, protecting your website from malicious software, preventing unauthorized file uploads, etc.

Most WordPress plugins address some but not all areas of WordPress security. One WordPress security plugin that does a comprehensive job of scanning, fixing and preventing issues that could lead to hackers accessing your site files and causing damage to your site is SecureScanPro.

SecureScanPro - total security plugin for WordPress

(SecureScanPro – total security software for WordPress)

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 plugin you may want to consider using is BlogDefender.

Blog Defender Security Suite

Blog Defender Security Solution For WordPress Web Sites(Blog Defender)

This product is a package of WordPress security video tutorials, plugins and tools, plus a WordPress security PDF/DOC file.

BlogDefender scans you WordPress site for potential security holes …

Blog Defender Security Plugin For WordPress WebsitesAnd lets you fix these quickly and easily …

Blog DefenderIf you don’t want to purchase a security plugin like SecureScanPro or BlogDefender, then use various free plugins, such as Limit Login Attempts

Limit Login Attempts - WordPress Security Plugin

WordPress is a very secure web platform, but neglecting simple maintenance tasks like updating your WordPress installation, plugins and WP themes, tightening file and data protection and taking other necessary precautions can have disastrous consequences.

No matter what kind 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 web security.

As a final reminder of the importance of keeping your websites protected, below is the advice given by a security expert to all WordPress users after the worldwide 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

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As you can see, WordPress security is very important if you run a WordPress site. Hopefully, 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 WordPress security specialist, or search for a professional WordPress technical provider in our WordPress Services Directory.

We also recommend subscribing to WPCompendium.org to be notified when we publish new articles on WordPress security and tutorials about WordPress security plugins and solutions.

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Author: Martin Aranovitch

Martin Aranovitch is the founder of WPCompendium.org and the author of The Small Business Digital Manager. WPCompendium.org provides hundreds of FREE detailed step-by-step tutorials that will teach you how to use WordPress to grow your business online at minimal cost with no coding skills required!

Originally published as How To Protect Your WordPress Site From A Brute-Force Attack.