In 2013 a worldwide brute-force attack struck WordPress installations on almost every host server in existence.
These attacks were caused by infected computer networks programmed to attack other sites, also commonly known as “botnets”.
How To Protect Your WordPress Site From A Brute-Force Attack
About Brute-Force Attacks
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. This can be done with software programs and scripts that can guess hundreds of login permutations in minutes.
If you’re using predictable user names and weak passwords that are easy to guess, your website could be an easy target for hackers.
This is called a “brute-force” login attack.
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 compromised and infected with malicious code, which are then controlled remotely as a group, typically without the unsuspecting computer owners even being aware that this is happening.
Botnets are often used to blast out mass spam emails.
The screenshot below was 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. Screenshot image: SecureList.com)
These were highly distributed and well organized attacks on WordPress. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by a number of webhosting companies just in the initial attack, when the web was flooded with millions of attempts to force their way into WordPress users admin areas. The mass brute force attacks continued after this, with over 30,000 WordPress sites being hacked every day.
News of the April 2013 brute-force botnet attack was reported by all of the major webhosting companiesand leading technology media publications, such as TechNews Daily, Forbes, PC Magazine, Tech Crunch, BBC News, and even on the official website of the US Department of Homeland Security …
(Powering millions of sites around the world makes WordPress a target for attempted hacking attacks)
Does This Mean We Shouldn’t Use WordPress Anymore?
No. In fact, there are lots of great reasons why you should choose WordPress if you are concerned about the security of your web presence.
We explain why WordPress is a secure web platform in this article: How Secure Is WordPress?
It’s important to note that, in the case of April 2013 large-scale brute force attack described above, no specific WordPress vulnerability was 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 botnet 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 Website From Brute-Force Attacks – Ten Security Measures
Every site with a security vulnerability can present an opportunity to hackers. A compromised blog not only presents hackers opportunities to improve their hacking skills and claim “bragging rights” from their peers, but it can also acts as a platform for launching distributed attacks, spreading malware and as a source of information theft.
If a hacker can hack and gain stealth control of your website or blog, the website can then be employed as a “bot” to attack larger and more highly-valued web sites.
Additional undesirable results of having your site hacked include getting blacklisted by Google, having stealthy spam links promoting things like viagra, discounted fashion, etc. inserted into your content and page title and descriptions, malicious redirects to phishing sites and other websites, data exfiltration (stealing customer details or Personal Identifiable Information from your web applications), and many other nasty things.
The harsh reality is that software-driven bots are most likely searching for exploits and trying to hack into your web site while you are reading this right now. Whether they can be successful will depend on how difficult you can make it for hackers to keep persisting until they discover how to get in, or are forced to give up and go look for a less protected target.
How Much Information About Your Site Are You Broadcasting To Hackers?
Do you own a WordPress site? If so, visit Hackertarget.com and run your site through their WordPress security scan …
You will see that the check returns a number of results and details about your website …
(Hackertarget – website security check results. Product image: Hackertarget.com)
It should be obvious after using the scanning tool that if you can freely access all of this information about your website, hackers can too.
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 on your server are all potentially valuable information to hackers, as this can inform them about exploitable security weaknesses, especially where site owners haven’t updated their sites.
If your website is powered by WordPress and you are not proactive 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 around the world!
Whenever a website or blog is hacked, webmasters can find themselves completely “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their files have been altered or even that their content has been completely wiped out. Often, most compromised sites will become infected with malicious software without the owner’s knowledge or awareness.
To avoid the heartache of discovering that your web site has been hacked into, we have listed below 10 simple, yet essential and effective security checks that will help to protect your WordPress site from botnet attacks.
Note: A few of the measures below need some technical skills to modify core WordPress and/or server files. If you have no 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 assistance.
Security Measure #1 – Get In Touch With Your Webhosting Company
Get in touch with your webhosting service provider and ask them what security measures are in place to help prevent your site from brute force attacks, and what is done to make sure that your server files and data get regularly backed up.
Check that your host backs up your sites and that, if disaster strikes, you can quickly and easily get back your files.
Security Measure #2 – Perform Complete WordPress Backups And Keep Your Site Regularly Up-To-Date
You should never rely on your hosting service for site backups. Instead, learn how to maintain your WordPress site or pay someone to get this service done for you and develop a habit of religiously performing a complete WordPress site maintenance routine on a frequent basis (e.g. daily, weekly, fortnightly, etc …)
A proper WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:
- All unnecessary files and data are removed,
- All WP data and files are free of errors, optimized and backed up,
- All WordPress software, plugins and themes are up-to-date,
- etc …
A full WordPress maintenance routine looks like this …
Again, we cannot stress enough how important it is to maintain your WP installation completely backed up and up-to-date. WP 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 WordPress site maintenance yourself, pay a professional 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 back up your data manually, there are a number of free and paid plugins you can use. Learn about a WordPress backup plugin that can automate your backup process here: Backup, Copy And Protect Your WordPress Site With Backup Creator WP Plugin
Security Measure #3 – Do Not Use “Admin” As Your Username
the worldwide brute-force attack on WordPress sites was mostly an attempt to compromise website administrator panels by exploiting installations that used “admin” as their account name.
For reasons of website security, avoid setting up sites with the username admin. This is the first area hackers will test. If your blog’s username is admin, you will should change this immediately.
We have created a simple step-by-step tutorial on how to change your username here: How To Change Your WordPress Username From Admin To A Different Username
Security Measure #4 – Use Strong Passwords
A “brute force” attack occurs when a malicious script persistently tries to guess the right combination of password and username characters that will unlock your site.
Unless some measure is put into place to stop the brute-force attack (see further below for a couple of simple and effective ways to do this), the “bot” will just persist in attacking your site until it eventually gets access.
Passwords that are easy to guess, therefore, become really easy targets for hackers. Make sure that you change your password combination to something containing at least eight or nine characters long, with both upper and lowercase letters, combined with a few “special” characters (e.g. %, #, *, etc).
You can use a password software tool like Roboform to help you generate passwords …
We have created a detailed tutorial for non-technical WordPress users on how to change your login password here: Changing WordPress Passwords
Security Measure #5 – Secure 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 options for WordPress.
(WordPress WP Config file)
If a hacker breaks into your WordPress site, they will typically try to access 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.
To protect your WordPress site from attacks 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 – Rename Or Delete Unnecessary WordPress Installation Files
Rename or delete your install.php, upgrade.php and readme.html files.
You can remove these files after installation, as they are unnecessary. If you don’t want to delete these files, just rename them.
Security Measure #7 – Keep Your WordPress Installation, Themes & Plugins Up-To-Date
Hackers look for vulnerabilities in earlier versions of WordPress that they can exploit, including out-of-date versions of plugins and themes.
Ensure that all of your WordPress files, themes, plugins, etc. are always up to date.
Security Measure #8 – Disable The Theme Editor
WordPress installations come with a built-in editor that lets the site administrator edit plugin and theme files inside the dashboard.
You can access the WordPress Theme Editor by selecting Appearance > Editor in your main menu …
(Accessing the WordPress theme editor via the dashboard menu)
This means that anyone logging into your site can view and modify your theme template files, and cause havoc on your site.
If you want to prevent people from accessing the WordPress Theme editor, you will need to disable it. This can be done by editing your wp-config.php file.
Security Measure #9 – Secure The Site’s Uploads Folder
The “uploads” folder contains 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 all of the contents in your site’s “uploads” folder is visit your directory using a web browser …
(WordPress uploads folder)
If any directories in your website have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious users, this could threaten 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 an empty file named “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 WordPress Security Plugins
A number of great security plugins for WordPress are available that specifically address common security issues WordPress site owners face, such as preventing hackers from gaining access to vital information about your site, protecting your site from malicious scripts, preventing injections of code into files, 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 files and causing irreparable damage to your site is SecureScanPro.
(SecureScanPro – WordPress total security plugin)
SecureScanPro is easy to install and easy to use, and takes care of most of the security issues that WordPress users need to address.
Another great plugin you may want to consider using is BlogDefender.
This product is a suite of WordPress security video tutorials, WordPress plugins and tools, plus WordPress security documentation in PDF and DOC formats.
BlogDefender scans you website for security weaknesses …
WordPress is a very secure platform, but neglecting basic maintenance tasks like keeping your WP software, WP plugins and WordPress themes updated to their latest versions, tightening file and data security 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, securing your website is something you simply cannot afford to ignore.
As one last reminder, below is the advice given by a security expert to all WordPress users after the mass brute-force attacks 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 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 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 via email whenever we publish new information on WordPress security and reviews of new security plugins.
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