In April 2013 a mass brute force attack hit WordPress installations across virtually every web host in existence around the world.
These attacks were caused by botnets (computer networks infected with viruses and programmed to attack other installations).
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)
One of the many ways hackers use to try and break into a WordPress site is by trying to guess the site admin’s login username and password. This is achieved with scripts and tools that automatically tries to guess hundreds of possible login combinations in minutes.
If you’re using weak login details, your website can be an easy target for hackers.
This is called a “brute-force” attack.
Botnet – What Is This?
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 can then be controlled remotely as a group, typically without the computer owners even being aware of this.
Botnets are normally used used to blast out mass spam emails from computers of compromised user accounts.
Below is a screenshot taken from an online security monitoring site 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 compromising computer networks all around the globe since 2009. Source: SecureList.com)
These were highly distributed and well organized botnet attacks on WordPress. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by a number of hosting companies in the initial attack, when millions of attempts to force their way into WordPress users admin areas took place. The mass attack continued after this, with over 30,000 WordPress blogs being hacked each day.
Coverage of this mass brute force attack was reported by all the major webhosting companiesand leading technology publications, such as TechNews Daily, Forbes, PC Magazine, Tech Crunch, BBC News, and even on the official US Department of Homeland Security website …
(WordPress powers millions of websites worldwide, which makes it a frequent target for hackers)
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 use WordPress if you are concerned at all about the security of your web presence.
To learn what makes WordPress a very secure platform for websites, see this article: Are Open Source Platforms Like WordPress Secure?
It’s important to note that, in the case of the worldwide brute-force botnet attack described above, no specific WordPress vulnerability was being exploited (the same script was also attacking sites built using other 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.
Preventing Your WordPress Blog From Brute Force Attacks – Ten Security Points
Every website or blog with a vulnerability provides some degree of opportunity to hackers. An unsecured site not only provides wannabe hackers opportunities to improve their skills and win “respect” among their peers, but it can also acts as a valuable platform for launching denial of service attacks, distributing malware and information theft.
If a malicious user can find a way to break in and gain access and control of your site, that site can then be used to attack other valuable websites.
Additional undesirable consequences of being hacked and your site security compromised include being blacklisted by search engines, having spammy links advertising things like gambling, cheap offers on brand names, etc. inserted into your content, redirecting visitors to phishing sites, data exfiltration (stealing customer details or Personal Identifiable Information from your web applications), and many other nasty things.
The truth is that malicious bots are trying to hack into your website as you are reading this page right now. Whether they will get into your site or not, will depend on how challenging you can make it for hackers or bots to continue trying until they find how to break in, or are forced to decide to look for a less protected target.
How Much Information About Your Site Are You Broadcasting To Hackers?
Does your website run on WordPress? If so visit Hackertarget.com and run your website through their WordPress security check …
You will see that the test returns various results and details about your WordPress setup …
(WP security scan results. Product image: Hackertarget.com)
It should be obvious after using the tool shown above that if you are able to freely access all of this information about your WordPress website, then so can hackers.
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 are all valuable information to hackers, as this informs them about any potential security vulnerabilities, especially where the owners haven’t updated their software versions.
If your website is powered by WordPress and you’re not precautionary 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!
Typically, whenever a website or blog gets hacked, site owners can find themselves completely “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their files have been modified or even that their content has been entirely wiped out. Typically, sites will be infected with malicious scripts without the owner even being aware that this has taken place.
To avoid the heartache that comes with having your site being hacked into, we have listed below ten essential and effective security measures that will help to prevent your WordPress site from being attacked by brute-force hackers.
Note: A few of the measures below require some technical understanding of how to modify core WordPress and server files. If you lack these technical skills, or don’t want to mess around with file code, then ask your web host or a professional WordPress technical provider for help.
Security Measure #1 – Contact Your Webhosting Provider
Get in touch with your host and ask them what security systems have been put into place to protect your site from brute force attacks, and what is done to make sure that your server files and data get backed up.
Make sure that your hosting provider 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 Frequently Up-To-Date
You should never rely only on your webhosting provider for site backups. Instead, learn how to manage your WordPress site or pay someone to get this service done for you and maintain a habit of performing a complete site maintenance routine on a regular basis (e.g. daily, weekly, fortnightly, etc …)
A full WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:
- All unnecessary data and files are removed,
- All WP files and data are free of errors, optimized and backed up,
- All themes, plugins and software components are up-to-date,
- etc …
A proper WP site maintenance routine looks like this …
Again, we cannot stress enough how vitally important it is to maintain your WordPress website frequently backed up and up-to-date. WordPress site maintenance is not hard to do 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 WordPress maintenance yourself, get someone else to do it but make sure it 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 back up your site manually, there are a number of WordPress plugins you can use. Learn about a WordPress backup plugin that can fully automate your site backups here: Back Up, Copy And Keep Your WordPress Websites And Blogs Protected With Backup Creator WordPress Plugin
Security Measure #3 – Make Sure That Your Username Is Not “Admin”
the worldwide brute-force attack on WordPress sites was mostly an attempt to compromise website admin panels and gain access to sites by exploiting sites with “admin” as their user name.
For reasons of website security, don’t set up a WordPress site with the username “admin”. This is the first area of potential vulnerability hackers will test. If your blog’s username is admin, then change this immediately.
We have created a simple step-by-step tutorial for WordPress admin users that shows you how to change your username here: Changing Your WordPress Admin User Name To A Different User Name
Security Measure #4 – Change Your Password
A “brute force” attack occurs when malicious software persistently tries to guess the right username and password characters that will unlock your website.
Unless you put some measure in place to block the brute force attack from happening (see further below for a couple of effective suggestions for doing this), the “bot” will just keep attacking your site until it eventually “cracks” the code.
Weak passwords, therefore, become very easy targets for brute-force attacks. Make sure that you change your password to something containing at least eight characters long, with upper and lowercase letters, and add a few “special” characters (^%$#&@*).
If you have trouble coming up with strong passwords or are reluctant to set up different passwords for all of your online logins, then use a password management program like Roboform …
For a simple tutorial created especially for WordPress admin users on how to change your password, go here: Changing Your WordPress Password
Security Measure #5 – Protect Your wp-config.php 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.
If a hacker breaks into your WordPress website, they will 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, prevent your wp-config.php file from being easily accessible. 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 – Upgrade Your WordPress CMS, Themes & Plugins To Their Latest Version
Hackers are always on the lookout for vulnerabilities in outdated versions of WordPress that they can exploit, including outdated versions of themes and plugins.
Make sure to always keep your software files, themes, plugins, etc. up-to-date.
Security Measure #8 – Disable Your Theme Editor
WordPress comes with a built-in editor feature that allows administrators to edit theme and plugin files from the dashboard.
In WordPress, you can access your WordPress Theme Editor by selecting Appearance > Editor from the admin menu …
(The WordPress theme editor can be accessed via the WordPress admin menu)
This means that anyone logging into your site can view and edit your WP theme files, and cause havoc on your site.
If you want to prevent unauthorized 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 – Prevent Access To Your WordPress Uploads Directory
The “uploads” folder stores all the media files that get uploaded to your blog.
Normally, this folder is visible to online users. All a person needs to do to see the contents stored in the “uploads” folder is visit the directory using a web browser …
(WordPress uploads folder)
If any directories in your website have weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers, anyone can upload unauthorized file types or compromise the security of your website.
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 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 unsure about what to do.
Security Measure #10 – WordPress Security Plugins
There are several security plugins for WordPress available that will address common security issues faced by WordPress website owners, such as preventing unauthorized users from accessing vital areas of your site, protecting your website from malicious exploits, preventing unauthorized file uploads, etc.
Most WordPress plugins address some but not all areas of WordPress security. One WordPress security plugin that seems to do a comprehensive job of scanning, fixing and preventing potential issues that could lead to hackers accessing your website files and causing damage to your site is SecureScanPro.
(SecureScanPro – complete 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 Solution
This product 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 holes …
WordPress is a secure platform, but neglecting basic maintenance tasks like keeping your WordPress software, WP plugins and themes updated to their latest versions, tightening file and data protection and taking other necessary precautions can have disastrous consequences.
Regardless of the 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 one last reminder, below is the advice given by a security expert to all WordPress users after the large-scale brute-force attacks 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 of the utmost importance if you run a WordPress site. Hopefully, the information in this article has provided you with the initial steps you need to take to prevent brute-force attacks on your WordPress site. If you need any further help or assistance with WordPress security, please consult a professional WordPress security specialist, or search for a professional WordPress service provider in our WordPress Services Directory.
We also recommend subscribing to WPCompendium.org to be notified when we publish new articles and tutorials on WordPress security and tutorials about new security plugins and solutions.
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