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How to Keep WordPress Safe and Secure

This little factoid should freak you out: More than 80,000 websites are hacked every day.

That’s almost one every second, or about 29 million every year. Those numbers translate to a lot of pain and inconvenience for a lot of people. Count yourself lucky if you’ve never been one of them.

There are a quarter of a billion domains with active websites. If 29 million sites are hacked every year, that means we’re living in a world where more than 1 in 10 websites are likely to be compromised. Every year.

How does this happen?

Security starts at home. It’s an old saying, but it applies to a lot of website compromises. We see a lot of hacks that aren’t actually website hacks at all, because the perpetrator is using valid FTP login credentials that were harvested by logging keystrokes or reading log files on a home computer or laptop that has been infected with a virus or malware.

But perhaps the most common way in to a website or server is through old, unpatched third-party software. And a large percentage of that old, unpatched third-party software is WordPress, or WordPress plugins.

Before I give you some tips on locking up your WordPress site, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Winhost has a fully managed WordPress hosting, security and hardening service. The service includes WordPress hardening for maximum security, WordPress-specific support and personalized assistance, and maybe most importantly, monthly updates of WordPress core, Plugins and Themes. The monthly updates consist of one of our in-house WordPress security experts personally examining your WordPress installation for malicious files and signs of compromise. If we discover that your WordPress installation is compromised or hacked, we’ll clean up the mess.

Okay, that’s it for the sales pitch. But if you’ve ever had to clean up a WordPress compromise, I’m pretty sure that you’ll be able to see the value in that service.

Locking down WordPress

The first step in WordPress security doesn’t have anything to do with WordPress itself, but rather site backups. If you always have a current backup, it’s much easier to bounce back from a compromise. Simply identify your most recent “clean” backup, delete everything on your site and upload the clean backup.

We do periodic backups of our entire network for disaster recovery purposes, so if you are compromised you could just request a backup from us. The problem with that approach is we back up every day, and we only retain one copy of those backups. So if you don’t notice that your site has been compromised for a few days, our backup will likely be a copy of the compromised site. That’s not going to be of much help.

So we recommend a cloud backup service. There are a lot of them out there, or you can set one up from your Winhost Control Panel with a few clicks. Our SiteBackup service backs up your website files and databases on a schedule that you choose, retaining as many versions of the backup as you want to keep.

Okay, so that’s a good place to start, with a daily backup of your WordPress site and database. Next are a number of things that you should do to prevent a compromise of your WordPress site.

Update, update, update
How often do you log in to the admin section of your WordPress site? If it’s less than every week – or even every month – you need to start checking in more regularly and updating both the core WordPress files and all of your plugins. If you use a plugin and can’t remember ever updating it, check out the plugin’s page on WordPress.org and make sure it hasn’t been abandoned. If it seems like it has, uninstall it. Chances are there’s a well-maintained plugin out there that will do the same thing.

Kill the admin user
If you installed WordPress some time ago, it may have created a user named “admin” by default. Most brute-force WordPress hacks attempts are on the “admin” username, so you don’t want it to be there. To check, go to your Users page (/wp-admin/users.php) and see if admin is listed there. If it is, create another user or give another existing user the administrator role and delete the default admin user.

Don’t use the default WordPress MySQL table prefix
If the bad guys do manage to find a vulnerability within your site and one of their attempts is to query a table or insert into a table and you used the default table prefix, you could be in trouble. When you’re installing WordPress it’s best to change the table prefix from the default “wp_” to something different. One easy way to do that is to insert random characters after “wp_” – for example wp1od02l_ or wp5434fs_.

Change the WordPress login error
By default, WordPress gives hints about your login when a login fails. One of the steps in our hardening service is to change the login error to “You have entered the wrong Username or Password!” That way someone trying to compromise your site will never know if the username or password is incorrect, making it much more difficult to force or guess a login.

Remove the WordPress version information
It really helps the bad guys to know which WordPress version you’re using. Once they know the version, they can try known vulnerabilities giving them a better chance of getting into your site. They’ll also use Google to find WordPress blogs running a specific version of WordPress that’s easily hackable. You can use a plugin to remove version information.

Disabling Theme and Plugin Editing
The theme editor within WordPress is there to allow you to make quick changes to the code within a theme’s files. Chances are you won’t ever use that feature, but you can be pretty sure that the bad guys will make use of it to enter malicious code. In fact, that is how a lot of WordPress sites get hacked. To prevent that, enter the following rule in your Wp-config.php file, right before the “Stop Editing” tag:

/** Disable File Theme and Plugin Editing */
define('DISALLOW_FILE_EDIT', true);

What else?
The Winhost hosting environment goes the extra mile by disabling executable files from running within the uploads folder, as well as IP restriction of the wp-admin directory. That way the wp-admin directory can only be accessed from IP addresses you specify.

Last but not least, install a Security plugin
If you haven’t already done so, we would highly recommend installing one of the WordPress security plugins. As part of our hardening service we make the security plugin a “Must Use” plugin. That means the plugin can’t be disabled from the admin section of WordPress. The only way to disable it is by deleting the plugin via FTP.

That’s a lot to install, configure and keep track of, but following these recommendations will make your WordPress installation much less susceptible to compromise. If it all sounds good but you don’t really have the time or inclination to do it yourself, let us do it for you.

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