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

When you are the world’s leading content management system and the online publishing platform of choice used by millions of websites and loved by thousands of website developers and web designers, it’s inevitable that at some point in time, WordPress will come under attack from hackers.

In early 2013, WordPress installations around the world were subjected to a global-scale brute force attack.

These attacks were caused by networks of infected computers programmed to attack other computers (called “botnets”).

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

What Are 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 methods hackers use to try and break into WordPress sites. One of these is by trying to guess the site’s administration login username and password. This can be achieved using scripts and software tools that can work through hundreds of login possibilities in minutes.

If you’re using obvious login details, your website can be easily hacked by repeated attempts to work out your site’s login details.

This is called a “brute-force” attack.

What Is A Botnet?

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/botnet)

”Botnets” are networks of computers that have been compromised and infected with malicious code, which are then controlled remotely as a group, often without the computer owners even being aware that this is happening.

Botnets are regularly used to blast out mass spam emails.

Below is a screenshot 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 globe since 2009 called “Zeus” …

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

These were well organized and highly distributed botnet attacks. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by several webhosting companies in the initial attack, when millions of attempts to force their way into WordPress site administration areas took place. The worldwide attack then continued, with over 30,000 WordPress sites and blogs being hacked each day.

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

(Being the world’s most popular content management system makes WordPress an obvious target for hacking attacks)

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

No. In fact, there are many very good reasons why you should choose WordPress if you are concerned at all 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?

It’s important to note that, in the case of the 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, one of the co-founders of WordPress with Matt Mullenweg, made the following 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.

(MikeLittle.org)

Protecting Your WordPress Blog From Brute-Force Attacks – Ten Security Measures

Every web site with a vulnerability can be seen as a potential opportunity to hackers. Every website has value to hackers. Business web sites, personal blogs, government sites … even web sites owned by web security experts can and have been targeted.

If someone can exploit a security vulnerability and compromise the control of your blog, that website or blog can then be used as part of a larger network of “bots” to target other valuable web sites.

Additional undesirable effects of having your site hacked and your site security compromised include being blacklisted by Google, having spammy links promoting things like gambling, discounted fashion, etc. inserted into your content and meta data, redirecting visitors to phishing sites, data exfiltration (stealing customer details or Personal Identifiable Information from your web applications), and lots of other nasties.

The truth is that brute-force software bots are probably scouring for security weaknesses and trying to hack into your web site while you are reading this at this very moment. Whether they will break in or not, will depend on how hard or easy you can make it for hackers to keep persisting until they either work out a way to break in, or give up and go look for a more vulnerable 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 …

(Hackertarget – WordPress Security Check Product image source: https://hackertarget.com/wordpress-security-scan)

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

(WP security scan results. Image source: Hackertarget.com)

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

(Product image source: Blog Defender)

Being able to see which version of WordPress you are using, which plugins and themes you have installed, and which files have been uploaded to certain directories are all potentially useful information to hackers, as this informs them about exploitable security weaknesses, especially in older versions.

If your site or blog is powered by WordPress and you are not taking steps to toughen up your site, then 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 installations around the world!

When a website is broken into, webmasters can find themselves completely “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their files have been vandalized or even that their content has been entirely wiped out. Typically, most sites will be infected with malicious software without the owner even being aware that this has happened.

To avoid the heartache (and significant loss of valuable business data) of having your website being hacked into, below are 10 essential and effective security measures that will help to protect your WordPress site from being brute force attacked.

Note: A few of the recommended steps below require some technical understanding of how 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 search for a professional WordPress technical provider in our WordPress Services Directory.

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Security Measure #1 – Contact Your Webhosting Company

Contact your hosting provider and ask them what measures they have put in place to help prevent your site from brute-force attacks, and what they are doing to ensure that your WordPress sites are being regularly backed up.

Check that your hosting company backs up your server files and that, if anything goes wrong, you can easily get back your files.

Security Measure #2 – Perform Regular WordPress Backups And Keep Your Website Regularly Maintained

Never rely only on your host for your site backups. Instead, learn how to manage your WordPress site or pay someone to get this done for you and develop a habit of religiously performing a full WordPress site maintenance routine on a regular basis (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly, etc …)

A proper WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:

A proper WordPress maintenance routine looks like this …

(Maintaining your WP website or blog completely backed up and updated is vitally important for WordPress security. Screenshot source: WPTrainMe.com)

Again, we cannot stress enough how vitally important maintaining your WP web site fully 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 second most important thing you must do after making sure that you are still breathing!

If you don’t want to back up your files manually, there are many free and paid WordPress plugins you can use. Learn about a WordPress backup plugin that can automate your backup process here: Back Up, Duplicate And Protect Your WP Websites With Backup Creator WP Plugin

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

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

For reasons of website security, never install WordPress sites with the username admin. This is the first thing hackers will test. If your site’s user name is “admin”, you should change this immediately.

We have created a detailed tutorial that shows you how to change your login username here: How To Change Your Admin Username In WordPress

Security Measure #4 – Choose A Strong Password

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

Unless some measure is put into place to prevent the brute-force attack (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 works out the combination.

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

Roboform is a password management tool you can use to generate different strong passwords …

(You can use a password tool like Roboform to generate very secure passwords)

For a simple step-by-step tutorial for non-technical admin users on how to change your password, go here: What To Do If You Need To Change Your Password In WordPress

Security Measure #5 – Protect 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)

If a hacker breaks into your website, they will search 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 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 being attacked and even being used as part of a bot net, therefore, prevent people from being able to easily get 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 – Rename Or Delete Unnecessary Blog Installation Files

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

These files can be removed after installation. If you don’t want to delete these files, then just rename them.

Security Measure #7 – Keep Your WordPress Blog, Themes & Plugins Up-To-Date

Hackers look for vulnerabilities in earlier versions of WordPress that can be exploited, including outdated versions of WordPress themes and plugins.

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

Security Measure #8 – Disable The WordPress Theme Editor

WordPress installations come with a built-in editor feature that lets the administrator edit theme and plugin files inside the dashboard.

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

(Accessing the WordPress theme editor via the main menu)

The WordPress theme editor allows anyone accessing your site’s admin to view and change your WordPress theme template files, or create havoc on your site.

If you want to prevent 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 – Remove Access To Your Site’s Uploads Folder

The WordPress “uploads” folder contains all the media files that get uploaded to your WordPress site.

By default, this folder is visible to online users. All a person needs to do to see the contents in your site’s “uploads” directory is visit your directory using their web browser …

(WordPress uploads directory)

If any files stored in his folder have weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious users, this can seriously threaten the security of your site.

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, adding 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 consult a professional if you are not sure about what to do.

Security Measure #10 – Install Security Plugins

There are a number of great WordPress security plugins available that specifically address many common security issues WordPress website owners face, such as preventing hackers from accessing your site, protecting your website from botnets, preventing unauthorized file uploads, etc.

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

(SecureScanPro – total security software solution for WordPress)

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 great plugin you may want to consider using is BlogDefender.

Blog Defender Security Plugin

(Blog Defender)

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 potential security weaknesses …

And then shows you how to fix these quickly and easily …

If you don’t want to invest in a security plugin like SecureScanPro or BlogDefender, then use various free WordPress plugins, such as Limit Login Attempts

WordPress is a secure platform, but neglecting simple maintenance tasks like updating your WordPress installation, WordPress plugins and WordPress themes, tightening file and data security and taking other necessary precautions can expose your website to malicious by hackers and bots.

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

As a final reminder, below is the advice given by an expert on web security to all WordPress users following the worldwide brute-force attacks by botnets 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

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As you can see, website security is very important 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 consult a professional WordPress security specialist, or search for a WordPress service provider in our WordPress Services Directory.

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

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