WordPress frequently comes under attack by hackers, due to its global popularity.
In 2013 a large-scale brute force attack hit WordPress installations across almost every WP host server in existence around the world.
These attacks were caused by computer networks infected with malware and programmed to attack other vulnerable sites (botnets).
How To Protect Your WordPress Site From A Brute-Force Attack
What Is 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’s administration login username and password. This can be done using software tools that can work through hundreds of login permutations in minutes.
If you’re using easy-to-guess user names and predictable passwords, your website can be an easy target for hackers.
This is called a “brute force” login 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.
A “Botnet” is a network of computers that have been compromised and infected with malicious software, which are then controlled remotely as a group, typically without the unsuspecting computer owners even being aware that this is happening inside their device.
Botnets are often used to send 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 infecting computer networks all around the world since 2009 called “Zeus” …
(ZeuS is a botnet that has been actively compromising computer networks all around the globe since 2009. Image source: SecureList.com)
The botnet attacks are well organized and highly distributed. 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 site administration areas. The worldwide attack continued after this, with over 30,000 WordPress blogs being hacked per day.
News of this brute-force botnet attack was widely reported in all the major webhosting companiesand leading technology publications, such as Forbes, TechNews Daily, BBC News, PC Magazine, Tech Crunch, and even on the official US Department of Homeland Security website …
(WordPress often comes under attack 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 good reasons why you should choose WordPress if you are concerned at all about the security of your online business.
We explain why WordPress is a secure platform for websites in this article: How Secure Is WordPress?
It’s important to understand 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 other web platforms like Joomla).
Mike Little, the co-founder of WordPress with Matt Mullenweg, made this comment 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.
Preventing Your WordPress Site From Being Brute-Force Attacked – 10 Security Points
Every blog with a security vulnerability offers some value to hackers. An unsecured web site provides hackers with a platform for distributed attacks, spreading malware and engaging in information theft.
If a malicious user can find a security weakness that allows them to compromise the control of your web site, your website or blog can then be used as a “bot” in a planned cyberattack against other valued sites.
Additional undesirable impacts of having your site hacked include being blacklisted by Google, having spammy links advertising things like casinos, cheap offers on brand names, etc. in your content and page title and descriptions, redirecting visitors to phishing sites, drive-by downloads (adding malicious scripts on your visitors’ computers), and many other nasty things.
The harsh reality is that software-driven bots are probably scouring for security weaknesses and trying to hack into your site right now. Whether they can break into your site successfully will depend on how hard you have made it for them to continue persisting until they discover how to get access, or are forced to give up and decide to look for a more vulnerable target.
How Much Information Are You Broadcasting To Hackers About Your Site?
Do you own a WordPress site? If so, visit a site like Hackertarget.com and run your site through their WordPress security check …
You will see that the test will display a number of results and information about your website setup …
(Hackertarget – website security check results. Product image source: Hackertarget.com)
It should be obvious after using the scanning tool that if you are able to see all of this information about your site, then hackers can too.
(Product image: BlogDefender.com)
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 can all be potentially valuable information to hackers, as this can inform them about any security vulnerabilities, especially in older versions.
If your website is powered by WordPress and you’re not taking appropriate steps to bullet-proof your site, it’s practically guaranteed that, at some point in time, someone will attempt to hack your installation, because these attacks are systematically hitting WordPress sites around the world!
When a site is broken into, website owners can find themselves “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their content has been vandalized or that everything has been entirely wiped out. Typically, most sites will become infected with malicious software without the owner’s knowledge or awareness.
To help avoid the heartache and aggravation of discovering that your site has been hacked into, below are 10 essential and effective security checks that will help to prevent your WordPress site from brute-force attacks.
Note: Some of the recommended measures shown below require some technical understanding of how to modify core WordPress and 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 a professional WordPress technical provider for help.
Security Measure #1 – Get In Touch With Your Hosting Service
Contact your webhosting service provider and ask them exactly what precautions are in place to protect your site from brute force attacks, and what they are doing to ensure that your server files and data get backed up.
It’s important to check that your host 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 Frequently Up-To-Date
You should never rely only on your webhosting provider for your site backups. Instead, learn how to manage your WordPress site or get this done for you and maintain a habit of performing a full site maintenance routine on a frequent basis (e.g. daily, weekly, fortnightly, etc …)
A full WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:
- All unnecessary files and data are deleted,
- All WP files and data are free of errors, optimized and backed up,
- All WP plugins, themes and software components are up-to-date,
- etc …
A complete WP maintenance routine looks like this …
(Maintaining your WordPress web site backed up and updated is vitally important for WordPress security. Source: WPTrainMe.com)
Again, we cannot stress enough how important maintaining your WordPress website fully backed up and up-to-date is. WordPress site 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 WP site 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 should do after making sure that you are still breathing!
If you don’t want to perform manual backups, there are many plugins you can use. You can read about a WordPress backup plugin that can fully automate your backup process here: Back Up, Copy & Protect Your WordPress Websites And Blogs With Backup Creator Plugin For WordPress
Security Measure #3 – Make Sure That Your Username Is Not “Admin”
The brute-force attack on WordPress sites was mostly attempting to compromise website admin panels by exploiting WP installations using “admin” as their username.
For reasons of website security, don’t install WordPress sites with the username admin. This is the first area hackers will test. If your site’s user name is “admin”, then make sure you change this immediately.
We have created a tutorial that shows you how to change your username here: Changing Your WordPress Admin Username
Security Measure #4 – Choose A Strong Password
A “brute force” attack occurs when a malicious script persistently tries to guess the right username and password character string that will give them access to your site.
Unless you put some measure in place to prevent the brute force attack from happening (see further below for a couple of effective ways to do this), the “bot” will just continue attacking your site until it eventually “cracks” the code.
Passwords that are easy to guess, therefore, become very easy targets for hacking attacks. Make sure that you change your password combination to a string that is at least eight characters long, and that includes upper and lowercase letters, and add a few “special” characters (^%$#&@*).
Roboform is a password management tool that lets you generate secure passwords …
(You can use a password management program like Roboform to generate strong login passwords)
We have created a detailed step-by-step tutorial for non-technical WordPress admin users on how to change your WordPress password here: What To Do If You Need To Change Passwords
Security Measure #5 – Secure Your WP Config File
The wp-config.php file contains information about your blog’s database and is used to define advanced options for WordPress.
If a hacker breaks into your WordPress 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 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 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 – Delete Or Rename Unnecessary Site Installation Files
Rename or delete your install.php, upgrade.php and readme.html files.
These files can be removed after installation. If you don’t want to remove these files, just rename them.
Security Measure #7 – Update Your WordPress Site, Plugins And Themes
Hackers are always on the lookout for vulnerabilities they can exploit in previous WordPress versions, including outdated versions of WP themes and plugins.
Ensure that all of your WordPress installation files, plugins, themes, etc. are always up to date.
Security Measure #8 – Disable The WordPress Theme Editor
WordPress comes with a built-in editor feature that allows site administrators to edit plugin and theme files inside the dashboard.
In WordPress, you can access the WordPress Theme Editor by selecting Appearance > Editor from your admin menu …
(The WordPress theme editor is accessible via the WordPress main menu)
The WordPress theme editor lets anyone accessing your site view and edit your WordPress files, and create havoc on your site.
If you want to prevent unauthorized people from accessing 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 Your WordPress Uploads Folder
The “uploads” folder stores all the media files that get uploaded to your site.
Normally, this folder is visible to all users online. All someone has to do to see the contents stored in your site’s “uploads” directory is visit your directory using a web browser …
(WordPress uploads directory)
If any directories in your website have weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers or malicious users, someone can upload unauthorized file types or compromise the security of 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 blank file 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 – Use Security Plugins
There are a number of great security plugins for WordPress available that will address most common security issues faced by WordPress site owners, such as preventing unauthorized users from accessing your site, protecting your files from malicious software, preventing unauthorized file uploads, etc.
Many WordPress plugins address some but not all areas of WordPress security. One WordPress plugin that seems to do a comprehensive job of scanning, fixing and preventing potential issues that could lead to hackers accessing your site files and causing irreparable damage to your site is SecureScanPro.
(SecureScanPro – WordPress total security software solution)
SecureScanPro is easy to install and easy to use, and addresses most of the security issues that WordPress users need to address.
Another great plugin you may want to look at using is BlogDefender.
Blog Defender is a suite of WordPress security video tutorials, plugins and tools, plus WordPress security documentation in PDF and DOC formats.
BlogDefender scans you web site for security vulnerabilities …
WordPress is a very secure web platform, but neglecting simple maintenance tasks like ensuring that your WP core files, plugins and themes are kept updated to their latest versions, 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, securing your website or blog is something you cannot afford to ignore.
As one last reminder of the importance of website security, below is the advice given by a website 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
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 whenever we publish new information on WordPress security and reviews of new WordPress security plugins and solutions.
"Wow! I never knew there's so much to learn about WordPress! I bought one of the WordPress for Dummies three years ago, such authors need to be on this course!" - Rich Law, Create A Blog Now