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

When you are the world’s most popular CMS platform and the preferred online publishing platform for millions of websites and loved by thousands of web developers and website designers, it’s inevitable that at some point in time, WordPress will come under attack from hackers wanting to score a “big win”.

In 2013, WordPress installations around the world were subjected to a worldwide brute force attack.

These attacks were caused by infected computer networks programmed to attack other installations (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 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. To achieve this, hackers use scripts and tools that automatically tries to guess hundreds of possible logins in minutes.

If you’re using weak usernames and passwords, your website can be an easy target for hackers.

This is called a “brute force” attack.

Botnets – What Are They?

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)

A “Botnet” is a network of computers that have been infected with malicious code or scripts, which are then controlled remotely as a group, typically without the unsuspecting computer owners even being aware of this.

Botnets are typically used to blast 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” …

(The Zeus botnet has been actively compromising computer networks all around the globe since 2009. Source: 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 admin areas took place. The large-scale brute force attacks then continued, with over 30,000 WordPress sites and blogs being hacked each day.

Coverage of this large-scale brute force attack was reported by all of the major webhosting companies, as well as the 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 …

(WordPress powers millions of websites around the world, making it a frequent target for hacking attempts)

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 about the security of your online presence.

We explain why WordPress is a secure platform for websites in this article: Why WordPress Is A Secure Platform For Websites –

It’s important to note that, in the case of the 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 applications like Joomla).

Mike Little, one of the co-founders of WordPress with Matt Mullenweg, made the following comment 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.

(MikeLittle.org)

Protecting Your WordPress Site From Being Brute-Force Attacked – Ten Security Checks

Every site with a vulnerability can be seen as an opportunity to hackers. A compromised blog provides malicious users with a platform to launch denial of service attacks, spread malware and use your website to steal information from others.

If someone can exploit a vulnerability, that blog can then be employed as a “bot” in a planned cyberattack against other valued websites.

Additional undesirable results of having your website hacked and your site security compromised include getting blacklisted by Google, having spammy links promoting things like casinos, porn, etc. inserted in your content, malicious redirects to phishing sites or 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 brute-force software bots are probably scouring for vulnerabilities and trying to break into your website or blog as you are reading this page. Whether they will get into your site or not, depends on how challenging you have made things for hackers to continue trying until they can either find a way to get access, or are forced to give up and decide to look for an easier target.

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

If you visit Hackertarget.com and run your site through their WordPress security scan …

(WP Security Scan Product image: Hackertarget.com)

You will see that the test will return a number of results and information about your website …

(Hackertarget – website security check results. 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 site, so can hackers.

(Screenshot source: BlogDefender.com)

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

If your site or blog is powered by WordPress and you’re not taking steps to bolster the security of your site, it’s practically guaranteed that, at some time in the near future, someone will attempt to hack your installation, because these brute-force attacks are systematically targeting WordPress sites around the world!

Whenever a website or blog is broken into, site owners can discover much to their dismay that they have been “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their files have been altered or even that their content has been completely wiped out. Typically, sites will become infected with malicious software without the owner even being aware that a security breach has taken place.

To help avoid the heartache and frustration that comes with discovering that your web site has been hacked into, we have listed below ten simple, yet essential and effective security measures that will help to prevent your WordPress site from being brute force attacked.

Note: Some of the recommended measures below need some technical understanding of how to modify core WordPress or server files. If you have no web skills, or don’t want to mess around with file code, 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 webhosting provider and ask them what systems have been put in place to help prevent your site from brute force attacks, and what they are doing to make sure that your server files and data are being regularly backed up.

It’s important to make sure that your hosting provider regularly backs up your sites and that, if anything should happen, you can quickly and easily get back your site.

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

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

A full WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:

A complete WP site maintenance routine looks like this …

(Maintaining your WP website or blog frequently backed up and up-to-date is vitally important for WordPress security. Screenshot source: WPTrainMe.com)

Again, we cannot stress enough how important it is to maintain your WordPress site frequently backed up and updated. WP 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 site maintenance yourself, get someone else to do it but make sure this gets done. Backing up your website 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 site manually, there are a number of WordPress plugins you can use. Learn about a WordPress backup plugin that can automate your backup process here: Backup, Duplicate & Keep Your WP Web Sites Protected With Backup Creator WordPress Plugin

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

The mass brute force botnet attack on WordPress sites was mostly attempting to compromise site admin panels and gain access to sites by exploiting sites with “admin” as their username.

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

For a detailed step-by-step tutorial on how to change your WordPress admin username, go here: How To Change Your WordPress Admin User Name

Security Measure #4 – Your Password

A “brute force” attack occurs when a malicious script 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 from happening (see further below for a couple of effective suggestions for doing this), the “bot” will just continue to attack your site until it eventually works out the combination.

Weak passwords, therefore, make very easy targets for attacks. Make sure that you change your password to something containing at least 8 or 9 characters long, and that includes upper and lowercase letters, and add a few “special” characters (%^#$@&*).

You can use a password management tool like Roboform to help you generate difficult passwords …

(You can use a password management program like Roboform to help you generate unbreakable passwords)

We have created a tutorial for non-technical WordPress admin users on how to change your WordPress admin password here: What To Do If You Need To Change Login Passwords In WordPress

Security Measure #5 – Prevent Access To 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 options for WordPress.

(WP Config file)

If a hacker breaks into your website, they will look for your 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 someone 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, 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 – Delete Or Rename Unnecessary WordPress Installation Files

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

These files are not required after installation. If you don’t want to delete these files, just rename them.

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

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 software files, themes, plugins, etc. are always up to date.

Security Measure #8 – Disable Your Theme Editor

WordPress installations come with a built-in editor feature that allows site administrators to edit theme and plugin files from the dashboard area.

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

(Accessing the WordPress theme editor using the dashboard menu)

The WordPress theme editor feature allows anyone accessing your site to view and edit all of your theme templates, or cause mayhem on your site.

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 – Remove Access To The Site’s Uploads Folder

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

Normally, this folder is visible to anyone online. All someone has to do to see all of the contents in your “uploads” folder is visit your directory using their browser …

(WordPress uploads folder)

If any files stored in his folder have weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious users, this could become a serious threat to 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, uploading a blank index.php file (this is literally an empty file called “index.php”) to your uploads directory, and so on. Again, it’s best to seek professional help if you are not sure about what to do.

Security Measure #10 – WordPress Security Plugins

A number of WordPress security plugins are available that specifically address most security issues WordPress website owners face, such as preventing hackers from accessing vital areas of your site, protecting your files from malicious exploits, preventing injections of code into files, etc.

Many WordPress plugins address some but not all areas of WordPress security. One plugin that seems to do 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 – WordPress security plugin)

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

Blog Defender WordPress Security Product Suite

(Blog Defender)

This product is a package of WordPress security video tutorials, WordPress plugins and tools, plus WordPress security documentation in PDF and DOC formats.

BlogDefender shows you where potential security weaknesses in your WordPress site are …

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

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

WordPress is a secure web platform, but neglecting essential maintenance tasks like updating your WordPress software, WordPress plugins and WordPress themes, tightening file and data protection and taking other necessary precautions can expose your website to attacks 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 cannot afford to ignore the importance of securing your sites.

As one last reminder of the importance of keeping your websites protected, below is the advice given by an expert on website security to all WordPress users after the mass 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, website security is of the utmost importance if you run a WordPress site. Hopefully, the information in this article has shown you what to do to keep your WordPress site protected from brute-force attacks. If you need any further help or assistance with WordPress security, please consult a WordPress security specialist, or search for a professional WordPress service provider in our WordPress Services Directory.

Also, please subscribe to WPCompendium.org to receive notifications when we publish new information on WordPress security and reviews of new security plugins and solutions.

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"This is AMAZING! I had learnt about how to use WordPress previously, but this covers absolutely everything and more!! Incredible value! Thank you!" - Monique, Warrior Forum

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