WordPress frequently comes under attack by hackers.
In early 2013, WordPress installations around the world were subjected to large-scale brute force attacks.
These attacks were caused by networks of infected computers programmed to attack other vulnerable computers, also commonly known as “botnets”.
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 WordPress sites is by trying to guess the site admin’s login username and password. This can be done with software tools that can work through hundreds of login combinations in minutes.
If you’re using easy-to-guess usernames and passwords, your website can be easily hacked by the script’s repeated attempts to work out your site’s login details.
This is called a “brute force” login 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.
“Botnets” are networks of computers that have been compromised and infected with malicious scripts or software code, which are then controlled remotely as a group, typically without the computer owners even being aware of this.
Botnets are normally used used to blast mass spam emails.
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 infecting computer networks all around the world since 2009 called “Zeus” …
(ZeuS is a botnet that has been actively infecting computer networks all around the world since 2009. Screenshot image: SecureList.com)
The botnet attacks on WordPress sites are highly distributed and well organized. Over 90,000 IP addresses were identified by several hosting 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 worldwide brute force attacks continued after this, with over 30,000 WordPress sites being hacked each day.
News of this worldwide brute-force botnet attack was widely reported in all of the major webhosting companiesand leading technology media publications, such as Forbes, TechNews Daily, PC Magazine, BBC News, Tech Crunch, and even on the official website of the US Department of Homeland Security …
(WordPress is the world’s most used content management system making it a natural target for hacking)
Does This Mean WordPress Is Not Secure And We Should Stop Using It?
No. In fact, there are many great reasons why you should continue using WordPress if you are concerned about the security of your online presence.
We explain what makes WordPress a very secure platform for websites in this article: Can You Build A Secure Business Online Using WordPress?
It’s important to understand that, in the case of April 2013 worldwide brute force botnet attack described above, there was actually no WordPress vulnerability being exploited (the same script was also attacking sites built using platforms like Joomla).
Mike Little, the co-founder of WordPress with Matt Mullenweg, made this 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.
Protecting Your WordPress Blog From Being Brute-Force Attacked – Ten Security Points
Every website or blog with a vulnerability offers potential value to hackers. If you think that your website is of no interest to hackers, think again. Corporate web sites, personal blogs, government sites … even websites owned by web security and anti-hacking experts can and have been targeted.
If hackers can exploit a vulnerability that allows them to access and take over your website or blog, your site can then be used to target more valued websites.
Additional undesirable consequences of having your site hacked and your site security compromised include getting blacklisted by search engines, having spammy links advertising things like casinos, porn, etc. inserted in your content, redirecting visitors to phishing sites and other websites, drive-by downloads (adding malicious software on your visitors’ computers), and lots of other nasty things.
The harsh reality is that brute-force software bots are probably trying to break into your site while you are reading this page right now. Whether they can get into your site or not, depends on how difficult you can make it for hackers and bots to continue trying until they either can find how to get access, or are forced to 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 Hackertarget.com and run your website through their WordPress security check …
(WP Security Scan Screenshot source: https://hackertarget.com/wordpress-security-scan)
You will see that the check will display a number of results and details about your site …
(WordPress security check results. Product image source: Hackertarget.com)
It should be obvious after using the scanning tool that if you can see all of this information, then so can hackers.
(Source: BlogDefender website)
Being able to see which 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 can be potentially useful information to hackers, as this can inform them about any potential security vulnerabilities, especially in older versions.
If your website is powered by WordPress and you are not taking steps to bolster the security of your site, then it’s practically guaranteed that, at some point in time, someone will attempt to hack your installation, because these attacks are systematically hitting WordPress installations all the world!
Whenever a website gets hacked, site owners can find themselves “locked out” of their own site, or notice that their files have been interfered with or even that their content has been entirely wiped out. Often, most sites will be infected with malicious software or viruses without the owner even being aware that this has occurred.
To avoid the heartache of having your web site being hacked into, below are ten simple, yet essential and effective security measures that will help to protect your WordPress site from brute-force attacks.
Note: A few of the steps below require some technical understanding of how to modify core WordPress and/or server files. If you lack these technical skills, or don’t want to mess around with code on your site, then contact us, or ask your web host or a professional WordPress service provider for help.
Security Measure #1 – Contact Your Hosting Service Provider
Get in touch with your hosting service provider and ask them what systems have been put in place to protect your site from being attacked, and what is done to ensure that your server files and data get regularly backed up.
Make sure that your host is regularly backing up your sites and that, if anything happens, you can quickly and easily get your files and data back.
Security Measure #2 – Perform Full WordPress Backups And Keep Your Website Frequently Up-To-Date
Never rely only on your webhosting service provider for your site backups. Instead, learn how to maintain your WordPress site or pay someone to get this done for you and develop a habit of performing a complete WordPress site maintenance routine on a frequent basis (e.g. weekly, monthly, etc …)
A full WordPress maintenance routine ensures that:
- All unnecessary data and files are deleted,
- All WordPress data and files are free of errors, optimized and backed up,
- All WP plugins, themes and software components are up-to-date,
- etc …
A complete WordPress maintenance routine looks like this …
(Maintaining your WordPress website frequently backed up and up-to-date is vitally important for WordPress security. Source: WPTrainMe.com)
Again, we cannot stress enough how vitally important it is to maintain your WP site completely backed up and updated. WordPress site 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, get someone else to do it but make sure it gets done. Backing up your website is the next most important thing you should do after making sure that you are still breathing!
If you don’t want to perform manual backups, there are a number of WordPress plugins you can use. You can read about a WordPress backup plugin that can fully automate your site backups here: Backup, Duplicate & Keep Your WP Site Protected With Backup Creator WordPress Plugin
Security Measure #3 – Make Sure That Your Username Is Not “Admin”
The mass brute force attack on WordPress sites was mostly attempting to compromise website administrator panels and gain access to sites by exploiting sites with “admin” as the username.
For reasons of website security, don’t install sites with the username admin. This is the first area of potential vulnerability hackers will test. If your blog’s user name is “admin”, then make sure you change it immediately.
We have created a step-by-step tutorial for non-technical WordPress users on how to change your username here: How To Change Your WP User Name From Admin To Another User Name
Security Measure #4 – Change Your Password
A “brute force” attack occurs when a malicious script continually and persistently hits a username and password field with different character strings trying to guess the right login combination that will give them entry to your website.
Unless some measure is put into 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 continue attacking your site until it eventually breaks into your admin area.
Passwords that are easy to guess, therefore, make very easy targets for hackers. Make sure that you change your password combination to something that contains at least eight or nine characters long, with upper and lowercase letters, combined with “special” characters (e.g. ^, $, &, etc).
You can use a password program like LastPass to generate very secure passwords …
(LastPass is a password program that lets you easily generate different secure login passwords)
Security Measure #5 – Secure Your wp-config.php File
The wp-config.php file contains information about your website’s database and is used to define advanced WordPress options.
(WordPress WP Config file)
If hackers break into your WordPress website, 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 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 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 WP 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 remove these files, then just rename them.
Security Measure #7 – Update Your WordPress Software, Plugins And Themes
Hackers search for vulnerabilities they can exploit in outdated WordPress versions, including out-of-date versions of WordPress 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 installations come with a built-in editor feature that allows you to edit theme and plugin code inside the dashboard area.
In WordPress, you can access the WordPress Theme Editor by selecting Appearance > Editor from the admin menu …
(The WordPress theme editor can be accessed via the WordPress admin menu)
The WordPress theme feature lets anyone accessing your site’s admin view and change your WordPress theme files, or create havoc on your site.
To prevent unauthorized people from being able to access the WordPress Theme editor, you will need to disable it. This can be done by editing your wp-config.php file.
Security Measure #9 – Remove Access To The Site’s Uploads Folder
The “uploads” folder stores all the media files that get uploaded to your WordPress site.
Normally, this folder is visible to anyone online. All someone has to do to view the contents stored in your “uploads” directory is navigate to 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 can seriously threaten 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 seek professional help if you are unsure about what to do.
Security Measure #10 – Install WordPress Security Plugins
Several WordPress security plugins are available that specifically address common security issues faced by WordPress website owners, such as preventing hackers from accessing vital areas of your site, protecting your files from malicious software, preventing injections of code into files, etc.
Most WordPress plugins address some but not all areas of WordPress security. One security 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 plugin for WordPress)
SecureScanPro is easy to install and easy to use, and addresses most of the security issues that WordPress users need to address.
Another great security plugin you may want to look at using is BlogDefender.
Blog Defender Security Solution
Blog Defender is a package of WordPress security video tutorials, WordPress plugins and tools, plus a WordPress security PDF/DOC file.
BlogDefender scans you WordPress installation for security vulnerabilities …
And then shows you how to fix these quickly …
WordPress is a secure platform, but neglecting simple maintenance tasks like updating your WordPress installation, WordPress plugins and themes, tightening file and data security and taking other necessary precautions can expose your site 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, website security is something you simply cannot ignore.
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 following the large-scale 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, website security is very important if you run a WordPress site. Hopefully the information in this article has given you the initial guidelines and direction you need to prevent brute force attacks on your WordPress site. If you need any further help or assistance with WordPress security, please contact us or seek help from a professional WordPress security specialist.
Also, please subscribe to this site to receive notifications whenever we publish new tips on WordPress security and tutorials about new security plugins.