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

WordPress is frequently the target of malicious attacks by hackers.

In April 2013 a global brute force attack hit WordPress installations on virtually every host server in existence.

These attacks were caused by botnets (networks of infected computers programmed to attack other installations with security vulnerabilities).

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)

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 can be achieved using software tools that can work through hundreds of login permutations in minutes.

If you’re using weak usernames and passwords that are easy to guess, your website could be an easy target for hacking attempts.

This is called a “brute force” attack.

Botnet Definition

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)

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

Botnets are typically used to send out mass spam emails from the infected computers of compromised user accounts.

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” …

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

The ongoing botnet attacks on WordPress sites were highly distributed and well organized. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by a number of hosting companies just in the initial attack, when the web was flooded with millions of attempts to force their way into WordPress users administration areas. The worldwide attack continued after this, with over 30,000 WordPress blogs being hacked per day.

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

(Being the world’s most used CMS makes WordPress a target for attacks by malicious users)

Does This Mean We Should Stop Using WordPress?

No. In fact, there are many great 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 note that, in the case of April 2013 mass brute force attack described above, there was no WordPress vulnerability being exploited (the same script was also attacking sites built using platforms 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)

How To Prevent Your WordPress Website From Being Brute-Force Attacked – Ten Security Points

Every site with a vulnerability offers some value to hackers. An unsecured web site provides hackers with a platform to launch DDoS attacks, spread malware and engage in information theft.

If someone can find a security flaw, that site can then be used as a “bot” to attack larger and more valuable sites.

Additional undesirable results of having your site hacked and your site security compromised include getting blacklisted by search engines, having stealthy spam links advertising things like online meds, cheap offers on brand names, etc. inserted into your content, redirecting visitors to phishing sites and other websites, data exfiltration (stealing information or Personal Identifiable Information from your web applications), and lots of other nasties.

The truth is that hackers are very likely looking for exploits and trying to break into your site right now. Whether they will get in successfully or not, depends on how challenging you will make things for them to continue trying until they work out a way to get in, or give up and go look for a less protected target.

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

If you visit a site like Hackertarget.com and run your website through their WordPress security check …

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

You will see that the test will display various results and details about your website …

(WP security scan results. Product image source: Hackertarget.com)

It should be obvious after using the tool shown above that if you are able to access all of this information about your WordPress site, then hackers can too.

(Screenshot source: BlogDefender.com)

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 useful information to hackers, as this informs them about potential security vulnerabilities, especially in older versions.

If your website is powered by WordPress and you’re not precautionary steps to bolster the security of your site, we can practically guarantee that, at some point, your site will be hacked, or at least targeted by bots, because these brute-force attacks are systematically targeting WordPress installations around the world!

Whenever a website or blog gets compromised, blog owners will find themselves “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their content has been interfered with or that everything has been entirely wiped out. Typically, compromised sites will be infected with malicious scripts without the owner’s knowledge or awareness.

To help avoid the heartache and frustration that comes with having your website being hacked into, below are ten simple, yet essential and effective security checks that will help to protect your WordPress site from being brute-force attacked.

Note: A few of the recommended measures below require some technical understanding of how 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 technical provider for assistance.

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Security Measure #1 – Get In Touch With Your Web Host

Get in touch with your hosting provider and ask them exactly what precautions are in place to help prevent your site from botnet attacks, and what is done to ensure that your server files and data get regularly backed up.

Make sure that your hosting company is regularly backing up your server files and that, if anything goes wrong, you can easily get back your files and data.

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

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

A full WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:

A proper WP site maintenance routine looks like this …

(Maintaining your WP website or blog fully 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 installation frequently backed up and updated is. WP site maintenance is not hard 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 website is the second most important thing you should do after making sure that you still have a pulse!

If you don’t want to back up your files manually, there are many plugins you can use. Learn about a WordPress backup plugin that can fully automate your backup process here: Back Up, Copy And Keep Your WordPress Web Site Protected With Backup Creator Plugin For WP

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

The brute-force attack on WordPress is mostly attempting to compromise website admin panels and gain access to sites by exploiting WordPress sites that used “admin” as their account 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 username is admin, change it immediately.

For a tutorial for non-technical WordPress users on how to change your login username, go here: Changing Your Admin Username In WordPress

Security Measure #4 – Use Strong Passwords

A “brute force” attack occurs when malicious software persistently hits a username and password field with different character strings trying to guess the right login combination that will give the hacker access to your site.

Unless you put some measure in place to block the brute-force attack from happening (see further below for a couple of simple and effective ways to do this), the “bot” will just keep attacking your site until it eventually works out the combination.

Passwords that are easy to guess, therefore, are very easy targets for brute force attacks. Make sure that you change your password to something that contains at least 8 or 9 characters long, and that includes upper and lowercase letters, combined with a few “special” characters (%^#$@&*).

You can use a password management software tool like Roboform to create unguessable passwords …

(Roboform is a password tool that lets you easily generate different strong passwords)

We have created a step-by-step tutorial that shows you how to change your WordPress admin password here: How To Change A Password In WordPress

Security Measure #5 – Prevent The wp-config.php File From Being Easily Accessed

The wp-config.php file contains important information about your WordPress site’s database and is used to define advanced options for WordPress.

(wp-config.php file)

If hackers break into your site, they will look for the wp-config.php file, because this is the file that contains your database information, 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.

In order to protect your WordPress site from attacks and even being used as part of a bot net, therefore, you must 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 WordPress Installation Files

Rename or delete the install.php, upgrade.php and readme.html files from your server.

You can remove these files after installation, as they are unnecessary. If you don’t want to remove these files, then just rename them.

Security Measure #7 – Keep Your WordPress Installation, Themes And 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 installation files, themes, plugins, etc. are always up to date.

Security Measure #8 – Disable The WordPress Theme Editor

WordPress comes with a built-in editor feature that allows administrators to edit theme and plugin code inside the dashboard area.

In WordPress, you can access your WordPress Theme Editor by selecting Appearance > Editor from your main menu …

(Accessing the WordPress theme editor via the admin menu)

This means that anyone logging into your site’s admin area can see and modify all of your WordPress theme templates, and create havoc on your site.

To prevent 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 The Site’s Uploads Folder

The “uploads” folder stores all the media that gets uploaded to your website.

By default, this folder is visible to anyone online. All someone has to do to view all of the contents stored in your “uploads” directory is navigate to your directory using a web browser …

(WordPress uploads folder)

If any directories in your website have weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious users, this can become a serious threat to the security of your site.

Protecting your directories will prevent unauthorized people 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 an empty file named “index.php”) to your uploads directory, and so on. Again, it’s best to hire a professional if you are unsure about what to do.

Security Measure #10 – Install WordPress Security Plugins

A number of security plugins for WordPress are available that specifically address most common security issues faced by WordPress website owners, such as preventing hackers from accessing your site, protecting your website from malicious scripts, preventing unauthorized file uploads, etc.

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

(SecureScanPro – WP security software solution)

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

Another plugin you may want to look at using is BlogDefender.

Blog Defender

(Blog Defender)

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

BlogDefender scans you WordPress installation for security weaknesses …

And lets you fix these quickly and easily …

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

WordPress is a secure platform, but neglecting essential maintenance tasks like ensuring that your WordPress installation, plugins and themes are kept up-to-date, tightening file and data protection and taking other necessary precautions can expose your site to malicious by hackers and bots.

Regardless of the type of business you run or plan to run online and how small you think your web presence is, you simply cannot ignore the importance of securing your site.

As a final reminder of the importance of keeping your websites protected, below is the advice given by an expert on web security to all WordPress users after the worldwide 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

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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 seek help from a professional WordPress security specialist, or search for a WordPress technical provider in our WordPress Services Directory.

Also, do yourself a favor and subscribe to WPCompendium.org to receive notifications via email when we publish new tips on WordPress security and tutorials about new security plugins.

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