Learn how to secure WordPress from hacking and hacker attacks by following these 6 steps to control access and eliminate vulnerabilities.

Why are WordPress websites hacked?

Hacking of WordPress and other websites are done by hackers for many reasons, which not only include gaining access to valuable information, but also to claim bitcoin or money for ransom, eliminate competition, spread illegal software, spread political messages, perform negative search engine optimization or abuse your website network bandwidth in larger coordinated hacker attacks against other sites. Only rarely is hacking done just for the fun of it, but when it is, it is usually about putting up a picture, which is known as defacing.

An example of how my website could look, if WordPress had been hacked and defaced by a hacker or automated bot network driven hacker toolkit.

More often than not, hacking are not actually done by a single hacker, but by an automated attack, that is executed by a hacker, that initiated a password cracking tool from a hacking toolkit, which controls a large coordinated bot network. In that case, your WordPress installation just happened to use a specific vulnerability, that this attack exploits. An example of such a vulnerability could be a security hole in a plugin, that has not been updated.

How to check, if WordPress are being hacked.

When WordPress is under attack, the website might become slow, unresponsive or unavailable. You might also see walls in network traffic. However, there is a better way to check, if your website are being submitted to hacker attacks or has been hacked.

Each time a user visits your WordPress website, or a hacking attempt is made, the web server, that hosts your website, logs any request. Each log entry includes a time stamp, the IP address of the visitor or hacker network, the targeted WordPress file and the error code from the web server. It can include more information, such as the user agent, which is the browser finger print of the visitor.

In the example below the log shows, that a Google bot visited the website and requested the sitemap, which was served. This is not a hacker attempt, so blocking this IP address could be a costly mistake, because Google would no longer be able to index your website.

66.249.66.36 - - [26/Feb/2021:23:04:19 +0100] "GET /sitemap_index.xml HTTP/1.1" 200 770 "-" "Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; Googlebot/2.1; +http://www.google.com/bot.html)"

If your website is under attack, you will discover patterns of repetitive requests to WordPress login page, WordPress plugins or other parts of WordPress, from suspicious network addresses. Store the log, so you can investigate, which part of your WordPress is being targeted and who is responsible for the attack.

Example of a brute force attack on WordPress login page.

Below is an example of a brute force attempt against the login page of a WordPress website. A hacker is running an automated piece of hacker software, that are trying different usernames and passwords from a long list of hacked accounts, common passwords from a dictionary and randomly generated passwords.

If your server does not identify this attack, then a brute force attack like this can run for days, weeks or months – and eventually obtain access. It is in an attack like this, that the length and difficulty of your password is important.

By looking in the web server log, you will notice a pattern of repeated login attempts. In this example the web server was not secured, so you will notice, that each request are followed by HTTP error code 200, which means, that the request was completed.

91.200.12.18 - - [07/Apr/2016:07:26:41 +0200] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3568
91.200.12.18 - - [07/Apr/2016:07:26:42 +0200] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3568
91.200.12.18 - - [07/Apr/2016:07:26:42 +0200] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3568
91.200.12.18 - - [07/Apr/2016:07:26:43 +0200] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3568
91.200.12.18 - - [07/Apr/2016:07:26:43 +0200] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3568
91.200.12.18 - - [07/Apr/2016:07:26:44 +0200] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3568
91.200.12.18 - - [07/Apr/2016:07:26:45 +0200] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3568
91.200.12.18 - - [07/Apr/2016:07:26:45 +0200] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3568
91.200.12.18 - - [07/Apr/2016:07:26:46 +0200] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3568
91.200.12.18 - - [07/Apr/2016:07:26:47 +0200] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3568

A quick look-up in WHOIS reveals, that this attack was done from a single IP address, that was registered to a local internet registry in Ukraine. It is not uncommon to learn, that scammer and hacker attacks originate from Russia and Ukraine.

# whois 91.200.12.18
inetnum:        91.200.12.0 - 91.200.15.255
org:            ORG-PS152-RIPE
country:        UA
mnt-by:         GLUBINA-MNT
created:        2007-09-21T12:32:02Z
org-type:       LIR
address:        Gvardeyskay, 14 , K. 1
address:        Severodonetsk
phone:          +380661922248

Further research confirmed, that these IP addresses were used by scammers and hackers, and was reported and registered in real-time black-hole lists (RBLs) and other abuse databases, that servers can use to identify and block hacker attacks.

Step 1: Restrict access to the WordPress login page.

Restrict access to the login page, dashboard and administration part of WordPress, so only administrators and editors of WordPress can access from known networks. This is called access control. This is not only a very strong protection from hacker attacks, but it also takes off the server load, that your site endures, while being submitted to brute force attacks.

This is best done by configuring the website, which is known as a virtual host, in the web server configuration. Below is an example of such protection in Apache. First the main directory of WordPress is secured. Replace the path with the path of your website and set your own IP addresses in the bracketed variables.

<Directory ".../www.example.com">
  <Files "xmlrpc.php">
    Require all denied
    Require ip ${admin}
  </Files>
   <Files "wp-cron.php">
    Require all denied
    Require ip ${server}
  </Files>
   <Files "wp-login.php">
    Require all denied
    Require ip ${admin}
  </Files>
</Directory>

Then the login part of WordPress is secured.

<Directory ".../www.example.com/wp-admin">
  <Files "admin-ajax.php">
    Require all granted
  </Files>
  Require all denied
  Require ip ${admin}
</Directory>

If this is not possible for you, then an alternative is to restrict access to the WordPress login page by using a WordPress plugin, that offers access control with the use of IP address white listing. Some plugins also offer limits for login attempts, two factor authentication (2FA) and other security measurements.

Consider country wide blocking or redirection.

You might consider going as far as blocking entire countries, that are not part of the market, that your website are targeted for. This is known as country wide blocking and is done by loading aggregated access control lists of IP addresses, that are used in countries, that should be blocked. These country lists are available and maintained by security sites on the internet.

The lists are either loaded by the web server or by the server firewall. An alternative to this is to use the lists, that are offered by WordPress plugins, but these are not as effective.

An alternative to blocking these countries are redirecting them to another site, that you might have dedicated for those and thereby segmenting your traffic into different sites.

Step 2: Use strong passwords for WordPress, database and web host.

The time, it takes for a brute force attack to be successful, depends on the strength of your passwords and the response time of your website. The strength is not only about the length of your passwords, but also, that it has never been used on other sites, that could have been hacked or otherwise compromised.

Use a password generator and a password manager.

WordPress comes with a built-in password generator, which is recommended, because it generates passwords, that are unlikely to be cracked by brute force attacks within reasonable time. You can also use another password generator or generate your own. I recommend my password generator.

The fact, that the passwords are long and complex, should not be a problem, because you should be using a password manager, which is either a part of your browser or a separate piece of software, that stores and handles your passwords securily.

Examples of strong passwords.

The passwords below are examples of strong passwords, that were generated by different password generators. The first one was generated by Mozilla Firefox. The next by WordPress. The last by a custom password generator, based on makepasswd, made by myself. These are just examples and should not be used. Note, how none of them contains dictionary words.

4bveHNGLgx6znip
@&g8@E%k^WE(#zzj^u&Mb)gJ
E8!0k=mC(g=839aAs)kSdfZ)V(2Fg(m_&3TjW/k0

Implement strong passwords everywhere.

It is not only the WordPress user account, you should secure with a strong password. You should also ensure, that the passwords to your WordPress devices, WordPress database and web host are protected by strong passwords as well. These passwords should also be unique and never used anywhere else. WordPress devices has separate passwords within the user accounts and are known as application passwords.

Finally you should go through the registered users accounts in your WordPress installation. Each one should use a secure password. Users, that are no longer active, should be logged out and deleted.

Step 3: Disable and delete unused and unnecessary themes and plugins.

Each theme and plugin for WordPress are vulnerable to hacker attacks. If they are no longer used, and no longer updated, they will become a day by day increasing target for hacker attacks. Your entire WordPress website will be at risk. For this reason, the use of themes and plugins should be kept at an absolute minimum and each theme and plugin should come from a trusted source and be actively maintained and supported by its developers.

Step 4: Update WordPress, themes and plugins regularly.

As times goes by, new features and software developments are introduced to WordPress, themes and plugins. As mentioned before, failing to keep software updated makes your website vulnerable to hacking. You should, for that reason, update your WordPress installation, and its themes and plugins, regularly. You can either have the server do this automatically, but if you are running a professional site, that offers a critical server, I recommend, that updating and testing is performed manually on a regular basis.

WordPress depends on the programming language PHP. You will also want to make sure, that you are using a PHP version, that is recommended by WordPress. WordPress also depends on a database server, such as MySQL. You will also want to make sure, that the version of this server is up to date and secure.

Step 5: Install a web application firewall.

While not necessary, you can consider installing a web application firewall, such as the Wordfence plugin for WordPress. If step 1 is not possible for you, this option becomes more important, because it is able to handle brute force attacks, identify security related issues with your WordPress installation and perform a number of security related measures to mature your website against hacker attacks.

However, you should be aware, that a web application firewall like Wordfence is not a real firewall. The reason for that is, that a real firewall runs on a network level and can effectively block hacker attacks and take off the server load from these attacks.

Step 6: Backup WordPress and its database contents regularly.

You should, at all times, have a backups of your WordPress installation. You should not rely on your website host to backup your site alone, but also have your own independent backups. If you have your own backup, you will be able to restore from even a worst case scenario, where your website and cloud backup has been lost.

A backup of your WordPress installation includes themes, plugins, uploaded files and configuration files. It should also include encryption certificates, analytics configuration files and other files, you might have. Because WordPress stores your posts and pages in a database, such as MySQL, then your backup must also include the contents of your WordPress database.

Creating backups of WordPress should be completely automated. Either by scheduling a script on your web server or by using another piece of software, that automates your backup process. You should keep a number of backups, so you are able to restore your website to a specific date. I recommend, that you have the web server dump your WordPress database and export a backup of your WordPress directory and database dump file to your external backup repository daily.

In the example below, a web server has been scheduled in crontab to run a script backup-wordpress, that dumps the WordPress database and exports the WordPress installation to an external backup repository each day at midnight while maintaining a number of rolling backups.

# Min    Hour   MDay  Month  WDay  User      Command
  0      0      *     *      *     root      /root/bin/backup-wordpress

If WordPress has been hacked and you need help.

If your WordPress website has been hacked, and you need urgent help to restore your website and secure your website from new attacks, then follow these steps at once.

  1. Secure your backups, so they are not over-written by ransom ware or bad data.
  2. Take your website offline immediately. Not only to protect your website from further damage, but also to stop spreading illegal software or being part of a larger coordinated hacker attack.
  3. Change all your passwords. This includes all WordPress users, the WordPress database and the web host.
  4. Obtain a copy of the web server log file. This will be used to investigate, what kind of hacker attack, your website has been submitted to, for how long, the extent of damage and other information.
  5. Make a backup of your WordPress installation. This might not seem important, if you know, that you have a backup elsewhere, but this will provide further insight into the kind of hacker attack, that your WordPress installation has been submitted to.
  6. Make a backup of your database content.
  7. Contact me at or directly. Please include a link to a copy of the log file.