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 SecurityBeing the world’s most used content management system makes WordPress a target for hacking attacks.

In early 2013 a global brute force attack struck WordPress installations on virtually every WP host server in existence.

These attacks were caused by networks of infected computers programmed to attack other vulnerable sites (called “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 methods hackers use to try and break into a WordPress site. One of these is by trying to guess the site’s administration login username and password. To attempt this, hackers use scripts and software tools that automatically tries to guess hundreds of possible logins in minutes.

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

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.

(Source: Wikipedia.org)

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

Botnets are often used to blast 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 infecting computer networks all around the world since 2009 called “Zeus” …

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

(The Zeus botnet has been actively compromising computer networks all around the globe since 2009. Screenshot: SecureList.com)

These ongoing botnet attacks on WordPress sites were highly distributed and well organized. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by several hosting companies just in the initial attack, when the web was flooded with millions of attempts to force their way into WordPress site admin areas. The mass brute-force attacks then continued, with over 30,000 WordPress sites being hacked every day.

News of the April 2013 worldwide brute-force botnet attack was widely reported in all of the major webhosting companiesand leading technology 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 …

WordPress is the world's most used CMS making it an obvious target for hackers

(WordPress powers millions of sites worldwide, making it a frequent target for hacking)

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

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

We explain why WordPress is a secure platform for websites in this article: Are Open Source Platforms Like WordPress Secure?

Useful Information

It’s important to note that, in the case of April 2013 large-scale brute-force botnet attack described above, was no specific vulnerability in WordPress being exploited (the same script was also targeting sites built using other applications 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.

(MikeLittle.org)

Preventing Your WordPress Site From Brute Force Attacks – Ten Security Points

Every website with a security vulnerability offers some value to hackers. A compromised blog offers hackers with a resource for distributed attacks, spreading malware and to engage in information theft.

If a malicious user can exploit a software security flaw and take over your website, the web site can then be used as part of a larger network of “bots” to target more highly-valued web sites.

Additional undesirable impacts of being hacked and your site security compromised include being blacklisted by search engines, having stealthy spam links advertising things like viagra, porn, etc. in your content and meta data, redirecting visitors to phishing sites or other websites, drive-by downloads (adding malicious software on your visitors’ computers), and many other nasty things.

The reality is that malicious bots are very likely looking for weaknesses and trying to hack into your website or blog right now. Whether they can hack in successfully depends on how challenging you can make it for hackers and bots to keep trying until they either discover a way to get access, or are forced to give up and go look for a less secure target.

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

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

WordPress Security Scan(Hackertarget – WordPress Security Check Screenshot: https://hackertarget.com/wordpress-security-scan)

You will see that the test will display various results and information about your WordPress site …

Website Security Scan

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

It should be obvious after using this scanning tool that if you are able to freely access all of this information about your WordPress website, so can hackers.

Website Security Check(Product image source: BlogDefender.com)

The ability to see what version of WordPress you are using, which plugins and themes you have installed, and which files have been uploaded to certain directories in your site can all be valuable information to hackers, as this informs them about any security vulnerabilities, especially where the owners haven’t updated their software versions.

If your website is driven by WordPress and you are not taking steps to bullet-proof your site, we can practically guarantee that, at some point, your site will be hacked, or at least targeted by bots, because these attacks are systematically targeting WordPress sites worldwide!

Whenever a website is compromised, website owners can discover much to their dismay that they have been “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their content has been interfered with or even entirely wiped out. Typically, compromised 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 of discovering that your website or blog has been hacked into, below are 10 essential and effective security measures that will help to protect your WordPress site from being brute force attacked.

Useful Info

Note: A few of the steps below need some technical skills to modify core WordPress 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 technical provider for assistance.

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Security Measure #1 – Contact Your Web Host

Get in touch with your hosting provider and ask them what security systems are in place to help prevent your site from being attacked, and what is done to make sure that your server files are being backed up.

Make sure that your hosting company regularly backs up your server files and that, if disaster strikes, you can quickly and easily get back your site.

Security Measure #2 – Back Up Your WordPress Data And Files And Keep Your Website Or Blog Frequently Updated

Never rely only on your webhosting service 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 religiously performing a complete WordPress site maintenance routine frequently (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly, etc …)

A proper WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:

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

A proper WP site maintenance routine looks like this …

Maintaining your WP website backed up and up-to-date is vitally important for WordPress security.(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 maintaining your WordPress web site completely backed up and updated is. 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 WordPress site maintenance yourself, pay someone 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 you still have a pulse!

If you don’t want to perform manual backups, there are many WordPress plugins you can use. You can read about a WordPress backup plugin that can automate your site backups here: Backup, Copy And Protect Your WordPress Web Site With Backup Creator WP Plugin

Security Measure #3 – Make Sure That Your Username Is Not “Admin”

The brute-force botnet attack on WordPress sites was mostly an attempt to compromise site admin panels by exploiting WP installations using “admin” as their user name.

For reasons of website security, never set up a WordPress site with the username “admin”. This is the first area hackers will test. If your site’s user name is admin, change it immediately.

For a simple tutorial created especially for WordPress admin users on how to change your admin username, go here: How To Change Your WordPress Admin User Name

Security Measure #4 – Make Sure Your Password Is Hard To Guess

A “brute force” attack occurs when a malicious script persistently tries to guess the right combination of username and password characters that will give them entry to your website.

Unless some measure is put into place to stop the brute-force attack from happening (see further below for a couple of simple and effective suggestions for doing this), the “bot” will just continue attacking your site until it eventually gets access.

Weak passwords, therefore, make really easy targets for attacks. Make sure that you change your password combination to a string containing at least eight characters long, with upper and lowercase letters, and “special” characters (%^#$@&*).

Practical Tip

Roboform is a password program you can use to help you generate different secure passwords …

Roboform is a password program that lets you create really secure passwords(Roboform is a password program you can use to generate different passwords)

We have created a detailed tutorial for non-technical admin users on how to change your WordPress admin password here: What To Do If You Need To Reset WordPress Passwords

Security Measure #5 – Prevent 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 WordPress options.

wp-config.php file

(WordPress WP Config file)

If hackers break into your website, they will typically look for your 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 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 attacks and even being used as part of a bot net, therefore, you must prevent people from being able to easily access 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 Installation Files

Delete or rename 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, then just rename them.

Security Measure #7 – Update Your WordPress Files, Themes & Plugins To Their Latest Version

Hackers search for vulnerabilities in earlier versions of WordPress that they can exploit, including outdated versions of plugins and themes.

Make sure to always keep your application files, themes, plugins, etc. up-to-date.

Security Measure #8 – Disable The Theme Editor

WordPress installations come with a built-in editor that allows site administrators to edit theme and plugin files from the dashboard area.

You can access the WordPress Theme Editor by selecting Appearance > Editor in your main menu …

WP Theme Editor Menu

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

The WordPress theme feature lets anyone accessing your blog view and make changes to all of your theme files, or cause mayhem on your site.

To prevent 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 – Prevent Access To Your Site’s Uploads Directory

The “uploads” directory stores all the media that gets uploaded to your site.

Normally, this folder is visible to anyone online. All someone has to do to view the contents stored in your site’s “uploads” directory is navigate to your directory using their browser …

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

(WordPress has an uploads folder where all of your media files are stored)

If any files stored in his folder have weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious users, this can become a serious threat to 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, uploading 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 use a professional if you are unsure about what to do.

Security Measure #10 – Use WordPress Security Plugins

There are a number of security plugins for WordPress available that will address common security issues WordPress website owners face, such as preventing hackers from gaining access to vital areas of your site, protecting your site from brute-force attacks, preventing unauthorized file uploads, etc.

Many WordPress plugins address some but not all areas of WordPress security. One plugin that seems to do 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 plugin

(SecureScanPro – WordPress security plugin)

SecureScanPro is easy to install and easy to use, and does a great job of fixing most of the security issues that WordPress users need to address.

Another plugin you may want to consider using is BlogDefender.

Blog Defender

Blog Defender(Blog Defender Security Suite For WordPress)

Blog Defender is a suite of WordPress security video tutorials, WordPress plugins and tools, plus a WordPress security PDF/DOC file.

BlogDefender shows you where the security holes in your website are …

Blog Defender Security Suite For WordPress WebsitesAnd lets you quickly fix these …

Blog Defender WordPress Security Product SuiteIf you don’t want to invest in a security plugin like SecureScanPro or BlogDefender, you can use various free WP plugins, such as Limit Login Attempts

Limit Login Attempts - WordPress Security Plugin

WordPress is a secure platform, but neglecting simple maintenance tasks like making sure that your WP installation, WordPress plugins and themes are kept updated to their latest versions, tightening file and data protection and taking other necessary precautions can expose your site to malicious by hackers and bots.

No matter what type of business you run or plan to run online and how small you think your web presence is, web security is something you cannot afford to ignore.

As one last reminder of the importance of keeping your websites protected, below is the advice given by an expert on web security to all WordPress users following the global 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, website security is of the utmost importance if you run a WordPress site. Hopefully, the information in this article will help prevent brute-force attacks on your WordPress site. If you need any further help or assistance with WordPress security, please seek help from a professional WordPress security specialist, or search for a WordPress technical provider in our WordPress Services Directory.

We also recommend subscribing to WPCompendium.org to be notified whenever we publish new tips on WordPress security and reviews of new WordPress security plugins.

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"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

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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 tutorials that show you how to use WordPress to grow your business online with no coding skills required! Get our FREE "101+ WordPress Tips, Tricks & Hacks For Non-Techies" e-course with loads of useful WordPress tips!

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