Secure a hosted WordPress site against ‘Brute Force Attacks’

Posted on Posted in WordPress

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This website like millions of other such websites is a hosted WordPress website. WordPress is open source & makes it super easy to create, design & manage high quality websites. This is the reason why WordPress is the leader in the content management system (CMS) arena.

Having said that this leadership position means that hackers are also interested in WordPress websites & security of these websites becomes an important part of the WordPress set-up.

 

Yesterday afternoon i started getting autogenerated mails for failed login attempts into my website admin page. I ignored these mails for a while as i had already set up a pretty strong policy for locking out users after a couple of unsuccessful attempts. My website has been targeted earlier also, and most of these were one of events.

 

Find below a copy of the e-mail.

**************************************************************
From: WordPress <wordpress@***********.com>
Date: 18 December 2016 at 3:09:05 PM IST
To: *******@*******.com
Subject: [***********] Too many failed login attempts

2 failed login attempts (1 lockout(s)) from IP: **.***.**.***

Last user attempted: administrator

IP was blocked for 1 hours

**************************************************************

 

When i checked my emails after a couple of hours i was surprised to see a continuous stream of failed login attempts. I quickly realised that my website was under a “brute force attack” using bots. This continued non-stop for the next 12 hours until i decided to figure out a way to stop this. When i checked the stats in the WP settings i saw 863 failed login attempts were made from different IP addresses. That led to 204 IP’s being blocked, which meant that the bot was most probably using compromised hosts across the globe to orchestrate the attack. Do keep in mind that my website does not hold any valuable information (of course my posts do help in sharing knowledge & that knowledge can be very valuable; but these posts are open for everyone).

See a snapshot of the number of attacks in a span of 6 hours.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-5-21-50-pm

 

“Brute Force Attacks”

The Brute Force attacks are not manually run by humans; these are sophisticated computer programs being randomly executed by bots. These programs are setup to randomly crawl the internet and look for some predefined URL’s, in our case it is the WordPress admin URL that ends with ‘wp-admin’. Once the URL is found the program would continuously use different username & password combination to try and hack into the website. The process is all automated and even the attacker most probably would not have any information about the site being attacked. With WordPress gaining prominence, such attacks are becoming more and more common and the severity of the attacks can at times be very high.

 

In my case I had already taken steps to secure my website by changing some settings in the WordPress admin panel and was confident that the brute force attack was not going to hack into my admin account. But the non-stop attempts to log into my websites WP admin console was consuming a lot of traffic and could potentially slow down my website. So i decided to look around and figure out a way to end the attack for good, during my search I tried a few options finally decided to use “CloudFlare”. This tool is effective and very easy to setup & use. I was able to successfully end the brute force attack & the service that i used is free.

 

In the remainder of this post i will document steps to enhance the security of a Hosted WP website. Most of these steps can & should be taken at the time of setting up the website to stay secure. First two points are generic security measures that should be followed by everyone who uses a hosted WP site, the third point is specific to keeping the website safe from Brute Force attacks using CloudFlare.

 

  1. Change the name of the default admin user. By default the name of the admin user is ‘admin’, immediately change this to something else & keep a strong password. But remember to NEVER use the below 4 names, as the bots that are used for brute force attacks would invariable start by using these user names only.
    • admin
    • administrator
    • root
    • (name of your website)

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-06-55-pm

 

2. Change Limit Login Attempts Settings. Go to “settings > Limit Login Attempts” and change the settings based on your requirements. I have given below some standard settings that should suffice for most new websites.

 

  • Lockout allowed retries = 3
  • minutes lockout = 60 mins
  • lockouts increase lockout time to = 1 hours
  • hours until retries are reset = 1 hours
  • Notify on lockout, check both of the below
    • Log IP
    • Email to admin after 1 lockouts

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-11-03-40-pm

 

These basic setting changes in WordPress would ensure that your site is fairly secure and hard to break into for bots trying to gain access to WP admin accounts.

“CloudFlare”

3. Use CloudFlare to stop Brute Force attacks. CloudFlare offers CDN, DNS, DDoS protection and security for hosted websites. We are going to use the free tier offering from CloudFlare to setup the security for our website. The process is detailed below,

  • Create an account in CloudFlare, go to https://www.cloudflare.com
  •  Click on “Add Website“, add the domain name without ‘www’ in the field given & click the “Begin Scan” button. This would take a minute, after that click on “Continue Setup“.

cloudflare.1

 

 

  • On the next page you would get Now you would be given Plan. You can choose the plan that suits you, I will by going for the Free Plan  the option for selecting the DNS Records. The page would automatically display the A, AAAA, and CNAME records that can have their traffic routed through the Cloudflare system.
  • If you do not have a good understanding of DNS leave these settings as they are & click on “Continue”.

cloudflare.3

 

 

  • On the next page you would get the option for choosing the Plan. You can choose the plan that suits you, I will suggest that you start by going for the Free Plan first and move to one of the paid options as and when the need be.

cloudflare.2

 

 

  • After this you will get the option of changing the name servers. You need to update the DNS settings on the portal of your Domain Name provider and use the “CloudFlare” name servers. The name servers for CloudFlare would look like xxxx.ns.cloudflare.com

cloudflare.5

 

  • After changing the name server settings in your DNS providers page, come back to the CloudFlare site and click on “Continue”.
  • The process of adding routing the DNS through CloudFlare is now complete, you can check the same on the main page where the status should be “Active”.

cloudflare.6

 

 

  • Now we will change some settings to make our website resilient against Brute Force attacks.
  • Go to Page Rules tab at the top and add a new page rule.

cloudflare.8

 

 

  • In the URL dialog box add the name of you website followed by wp-login.*   as an example we will take the following URL —>   abc.com/wp-login.*
  • In the settings dropdown boxes, select the below two options
    • Browser Integrity Check — Enable this
    •  Security Level — Change this to “I’m Under Attack”

cloudflare.7

 

 

These settings would ensure that bots find it difficult to reach your site to execute their programs, this would significantly increase the security of your hosted WordPress website. Even though it is still possible for a Hacker to break into your website, these steps would increase the cost of the attack for hacking the website & most attackers would move on to other weekly guarded websites.

 

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